He's only 32, but already he seems casual about staging those big production numbers that can tear at the nerves of photographers with lots more experience. Take, for instance, the shoot he was doing for Details magazine in downtown Manhattan. There was a Rolls-Royce, parked in the middle of the street, against a backdrop that looked like a Maxfield Parrish painting flapping in a stiff April breeze. A crew of ten hurried to position the props, including several dozen white balloons, a life-size plastic zebra, an Oriental carpet, and a Victorian armchair. Meanwhile, another assistant scurried around with a smoke machine that sounded like a lawn mower on steroids. In the middle of the mayhem, calmly taking it all in and smiling approvingly, was David LaChapelle.
Though he's one of the hottest photographers working in fashion and advertising today, you couldn't call him an overnight sensation. He's been working since the mid-1980's (in 1987, American Photographer chose the then unknown LaChapelle as one of its promising "New Faces"), but in the past year his career has gone ballistic. He's under contract with Details magazine. His superlative campaign for Diesel jeans has set the ad industry on its ear. And he's negotiating with publishers to do a book within the next year. Even the staid New York Times couldn't help taking notice of LaChapelle's emergence with a profile last November. "I feel I've just gotten better," says LaChapelle, explaining he's not-so-sudden success. "I've gotten a lot of responsibility, but I've also got the right venues now. It took me a long time to get where people trust what I do. You get to the point where they hire you because they know you'll do something special."
The something special LaChapelle brings is a look all his own-he's at the forefront of the color revival in photography-and a big, brash attitude. "My work is about making candy for the eyes," he explains. "It's about grabbing your attention. Even though my work is appearing in magazines, I'm trying to make a large picture. I want my photographs to read like a poster." He counts as influences the "insanity" of Guy Bourdin, the artificiality of pop art, the obscenity of Helmut Newton, the wild release of Jean Paul Goude, and Richard Bernstein's colorful covers for the early Interview.
To date, he says, his biggest success has been his work for Diesel-especially a recent ad in which he included an image of two sailors kissing. The photo was originally taken for a Details story about bodybuilders Rod and Bob Jackson-Paris and their book about their marriage, Straight from the Heart. The piece never ran (because, ironically, it was suggested that it might alienate advertisers). "Diesel was very cool," LaChapelle says. "We collaborated on the campaign, The result is the picture I'm most proud of; there's a message within this picture." Since its debut, the ad has created the kind of stir a client like Diesel can only imagine.
When LaChapelle moved to New York after attending the North Carolina School of the Arts, he showed his photographs in fine-art galleries with limited success. He's subsequently found his home in magazines. "It's more exciting for me right now to be able to do the Diesel shoot than gallery work," he says. "I wake up and think, You can do anything with a blank page in a magazine. It's a great inspiration. Besides, magazines are more important, more relevant. You have artists like Richard Prince and Jeff Koons doing art that looks like it comes out of a magazine, and what I'm doing is in magazines."
Text By Peter Hay Halpert