Surrealist photographer creates his own paradise in east Maui's wilderness
David LaChapelle's bedroom is surrounded by kava, a tranquilizing plant that some say can fight insomnia and inspire vivid dreams. Despite that, the 46-year-old photographer said he couldn't sleep one recent night, giddy about an upcoming seven-day shoot here. "I always used to pray for a cabin in the woods with vegetarian food and a place to make my art," said Mr. LaChapelle, his trucker hat twisted sideways as he reached into a gallon-sized jar of honeycomb, harvested from a nearby beehive.
Burnt out after two decades in the world of fashion photography, where he became famous for his surreal portraits of pop stars like Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears, the Warhol disciple called it quits, left his homes in New York and Los Angeles and purchased an 18-acre former nudist colony here on the Wainapanapa coast, a woodsy piece of land overgrown with bramble and teeming with mosquitoes. He spent much of his first three rainy months staring up at the sky in the Italian marble bathtub he had installed outside his cabin, nestled in a jungle of ferns, dragon-fruit plants and night-blooming jasmine.
Down On the Farm
The property, surrounded by a state park, is protected by a virtually impenetrable wall of hau bush—an invasive, woody plant—and morning glory. The main, plantation-style house, completely solar-powered, has five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a library, a caretaker's apartment and workshop. Wood-louvered doors recycled from an old hotel make up the sides of the home, the kitchen was fitted with local eucalyptus and the armoires, library shelves and canopy beds were made of koa wood from the Big Island. Black pebbles coat the shower floors to simulate the texture of the black-sand beach nearby.
Outside a 30,000-gallon rain catchment barrel supplies water. Goats provide milk and fertilizer and frogs were provided to catch mosquitoes. There's a waste, vegetable and bio-diesel refinery; a Mercedes painted in pink camouflage runs on vegetable oil.
"Very few people from the mainland would put up with all that—mosquitoes, rain, solar power—but it's unquestionably the right place for him," says Craig Maldonado, Mr. LaChapelle's designer and project manager who lived on the property for two years during construction and oversaw 35 employees.
There are only a few reminders of the celebrities Mr. LaChapelle was known for photographing. An iron gate flanked by stone columns was a gift from Courtney Love. There's a white grand piano that Lady Gaga played when she visited earlier this year. On a recent Friday, a winged Michael Jackson impersonator, flown in from Denver, practiced his moonwalk on the cliffs. (Mr. LaChapelle, who never photographed Mr. Jackson, said he wanted to depict the singer as a martyr crucified by the media.)
Born and raised in Farmington, Conn., Mr. LaChapelle spent many years at the center of pop culture. Dropping out of high school, he moved to New York City and became a busboy at Studio 54. After a year in art school, he returned to New York at 18 and landed his first job with Andy Warhol at Interview Magazine. That launched him into a very successful career in commercial photography. Mr. LaChapelle shot for Vogue and Vanity Fair and directed music videos and commercials for the likes of L'Oréal and Burger King. Celebrities were drawn to his irreverent style.
But a few years ago Mr. LaChapelle felt depleted. "I love glamour, I love fashion. But when that's the sole purpose it becomes very limiting," he says. He struggled to find magazines with an appetite for his increasingly apocalyptic imagery. (Among his darker works: "The House At The End of The World," a photo depicting a woman and a baby in a hurricane-ravaged neighborhood, drew criticism when it was published coincidentally around the same time of Hurricane Katrina.) At the same time, Mr. LaChapelle found himself growing disillusioned with New York, which he says "became 'Sex in the City' and about how many shoes you had."
Long drawn to eastern Maui's remote feel, Mr. LaChapelle found out about the nudist colony while directing a shoot for Motorola and bought the property for $1.5 million in 2006. Moving into one of the modest cabins left by the former owners, Mr. LaChapelle set his designer to work renovating the 5,200-square-foot main house. He felt he'd reached an endpoint with photography and considered becoming a farmer.
Currently there are about 10 homes for sale in the area, from a $450,000 cottage to larger estates listed for $5 million.
When his manager Fred Torres suggested he start showing in galleries, he says Mr. LaChapelle reacted angrily. "He said, 'Nobody wants to see me, they want to see Britney Spears,' " recalls Mr. Torres.
After his first 90 days in Hawaii, during which it rained constantly, Mr. LaChapelle called Mr. Torres and said he'd reconsidered. They flew to the Sistine Chapel the next week and set to work on his "Deluge" series—a collection of photos depicting floods in Las Vegas (the city of sin), a cathedral and a museum. "Deluge: Musuem," a photograph of four paintings sinking in a flooded museum, fetched $139,240 at Sotheby's London auction in June, nearly three times the November sale prices of Mr. LaChapelle's life-sized portraits of Madonna and Ms Spears.
Living in Hawaii has infused Mr. LaChapelle's work with a new optimism. For a photograph last month, Mr. LaChapelle's team constructed a raft from wooden planks and rusty barrels for a photo inspired by Théodore Géricault's 1819 painting, "The Raft of Medusa," now hanging in the Louvre. In Mr. LaChapelle's version, the sinners he depicted in his Las Vegas flood have cobbled together a raft and, instead of going into the storm, they're sailing into paradise, he says.
"This is Noah's ark," he said, glancing around the great room in main house while a friend and Cirque du Soleil veteran named Jesus Villa did handstands on the kitchen counter. "It's totally off the grid."
Corrections & Amplifications A Hawaiian property owned by photographer David LaChapelle is in east Maui. A previous version of this article incorrectly said it was in west Maui.
By Hannah Karp