Before the singularly eccentric pop conceptualist was chronicling the stars of the naughtiest and aughties on the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair, a young 21-year-old David LaChapelle was shooting friends and strangers found on the streets of New York and showing his photographs in upstart galleries downtown. Here we’ve collected a selection of these early works from the 1980s and made them glossy for the first time.
It’s impossible to think of fashion and celebrity portraiture today without thinking of the provocative and often-polarizing work of David LaChapelle – the stagey, high-voltage bleached and tinted erotic’s, the religious overtones, a hybrid of cartoon and confessional – even if in the past half-decade he has withdrawn from magazines to focus on making art, with five solo museum exhibitions in the last year alone. And not everyone knows that art is where LaChapelle got his start, when as a 17-year-old high school dropout he enrolled at the North Carolina School of the Arts, finished his secondary education and high-tailed it to Manhattan. “When I came to New York, I knew I had to make my own kind of work,” he remembers “and these images you see here represent the very beginnings of that. These were analog photographs enhanced by manipulating negatives and hours spent printing in the dark room. I refer to this time as the dark ages of my life: I was either in a nightclub, in the dark room or shooting.”
In 1984, LaChapelle was 21 and the city was gritty, open field for opportunity. He met Lisa Spellman as an aspiring gallerist (30 years later, she is a venerable Chelsea institution) and they put on a show of his black ad white photographs titled Good News for Modern Man as the inaugural exhibition at her gallery’s eponymous first home in her loft at 303 Park Avenue South. “We didn’t know that you had to wait a year before you had another show-“ so they didn’t: five months later, 303 Gallery presented another series of LaChapelle called Angels, Saints and Martyrs.
After a stint in London, LaChapelle returned to New York and in 1988 did a show of color photographs called Your Needs Met at 56 Bleecker Gallery. “There’s a lot of sincerity and intention going into these pictures, there’s nothing ironic about them. When I was making them I never had any aspirations to be rich or famous or anything. I just wanted to share these pictures with people and touch them, I wanted to share images that I loved.”
By the end of that decade he as reaching people alright, working on an increasingly ambitious scale and creating some of the iconic images whose stylistic roots can be traced throughout these pages. “The 80s were the best times and the worst of times. So much creative energy going on in the East Village, so much happening – gallery shows, music, dancing, clubs – all under this cloud of AIDS, watching young friends die, not knowing if I would be next. Yet, there was so much camaraderie among artists, causing explosions of artistic expression – all concentrated in one neighborhood, in one time. It informed everything I believe today and made me who I am.”
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