David LaChapelle has turned Leonardo DiCaprio into a porn star, encouraged the Beastie Boys to flip burgers and put model Joel West in a room with a pair of huge breasts. It's all in a day's work for one of the decade's most prolific pop-culture photographers. His kinetic, color-saturated work overflows with the obsessions of our time: fame, sex, fetishes, fashion, new money and new technology.
LaChapelle's first work appeared in magazines-and if you scan the pages of his book, LaChapelle Land, you'll be reminded of the images that helped make Details, The Face and French Vogue worth buying over the years. But the 34-year-old LaChapelle has recently expanded his vision through commercials, music videos and Salvation Armani, a short film for Giorgio Armani, starring Jennifer Tilly.
Time Out New York: you first came to NYC when you were just 15. That's pretty young.
David LaChapelle: I didn't have a choice. I was a fag and a misfit, and I was being laughed out of high school in Connecticut. So I dropped out. I had all F's-except in my art classes, anyway. I came to stay with my friend who was a punk, shaved head, militant dyke who worked at CBGB, and discovered that everything that made me a freak in Connecticut, people embraced me for here. I was this young kid working in nightclubs, and I loved it.
TONY: Did you really work at Studio 54?
DL: Yes. I was a busboy there in its heyday. No one believes me because now everyone says they hung out at Studio, but you know who else worked there? Phillip Bloch [celebrated stylist to the stars]. He's the only person who knows I'm telling the truth.
TONY: You have a reputation for getting celebrities to let their hair down in your photographs. How do you do it?
DL: I sleep with them the night before, and by morning they are so satisfied, they'll do anything I want. [Laughs] Usually, it's collaboration. With Tom Arnold in the chicken suit, we were playing with this idea that he was a kooky blue-collar gut who came out of nowhere and became a star. When I photographed Daniel Day-Lewis naked, the reason I wanted to do it wasn't just to do a titillating photograph, although he does have a beautiful body. It was because he lays himself so bare in all the roles he takes on.
TONY: What, if anything, makes your job difficult?
DL: Sometimes I meet young actors who balk at being photographed and say it's not cool, but they think James Dean was cool, and I remind them that James Dean left a legacy of thousands of photographs and maybe, like, three films. That famous picture of James Dean as the lone, struggling actor walking in Times Square? That was a photo session.
TONY: Are publicists wary of you?
DL: I don't do the same old shit, and I never repeat myself, so it's safer for them to say they don't want to work with me. One actress caused a lot of trouble for me, but the whole thing blew up in her face, and now people think she's difficult to work with. I do believe in making celebrities look like movie stars-bigger than life. No matter what you think of my concepts or me, you can't say that Uma Thurman or Leonardo DiCaprio-or even Mira Sorvino-don't look beautiful in my photographs.
TONY: You did a self-portrait to run with this interview. Was that tough?
DL: Yeah. It's hard to even begin to think about myself that way. I'm surprised that anyone is interested in me or who I've become. So I just wore whatever I wear and went into one of the sets, and that's it.
TONY: What would you be doing if you weren't a photographer?
DL: Nothing, because I could never hold down a job. It was easy for me to get a job-I worked at Burger King, McDonald's and KFC-but I had a problem with authority.[Laughs]
TONY: You manipulate your images with the help of a computer. There's been some controversy about this.
DL: The minute you point a camera at something, you are manipulating the image, because you are cropping out whatever is to the left and right of it. The minute you put a light on someone, you are manipulating the image. The computer is a slave to the photograph. If you don't have a good photograph to start with, you have nothing. Those old pictures of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were heavily retouched. If those guys had had computers, they would have used them, but they didn't, so instead they used emulsion and a scalpel to scrape off every wrinkle, change necklines and add cleavage.
TONY: Is this criticism the result of a resistance to new technology?
DL: Yes, I think the people who are squawking about computers are the same people who squawked about color film versus black and white. But there is a lot of bad computer imagery out there. It's really important to me that what I photographed existed in time. I wanted to see a pair of giant tits in a room, so I made them. They were there, and we jumped around on them. These things have to exist in time, because these photographs are documents. Lili Taylor was sitting on that mushroom and drinking a milk shake in my mom's front yard in Connecticut. And you know what? That's probably the last time she ever wore a dress.
TONY: Your style is quite different from the naturalistic photography that's in vogue in many fashion magazines.
DL: The two most ripped-off photographers in the past six years have been Nan Goldin and Larry Clark. These two artists took some harrowing pictures of themselves, their lovers, their fights. What some fashion photographers did was imitate these artists by getting some model and fucking up her hair and putting her in a Prada top and Gucci shoes and throwing her in a dirty apartment that's not her own. They say these pictures are more modern and more real, but they're fantasy presented as real. My work is fantasy presented as fantasy; I'm into escapism and beauty. I live on the Lower East Side, and once, I lived in a squat. I've had friends OD, so I don't want to see someone looking strung out-I've been there.
Text By Cathay Che