“I saw how they treated Andy at the end of his life. People were awful to him, they hounded him to death. He was huge in Europe and Asia, sure, but at home…” legendary photographer and one-man personality cult David LaChapelle is rarely at a loss for words. He thinks out loud, incapable of or uninterested in keeping secrets: guilelessly an with unnerving generosity picking up the threads of his life story where he left off, as though he were always already your lifelong friends. We met to talk about the newly released Michael Jackson picture, the first of a trilogy, but we were talking about Andy Warhol. “Critics ignoring him, calling his collaboration with Basquiat a disaster. I saw him actually painting in those days, taking up a brush, painting The Last Supper. Around then, Peter Brandt tried to donate a 20-foot Mao to the Modern and they rejected it because they had “no room” can you imagine! Then Andy died and two years later the MoMA has this retrospective; it was the first time they’d ever given over the entire building, every gallery on every floor it seemed like, to a single artist. They had plenty of room then, didn’t they?"
“And it was the same with Michael. When Andy died, I know this will sound crazy, but it really was like 9/11, like a monument falling—and it was the same thing with Jackson, but at this Biblical scale. He lived extremes, he was the most famous person on the planet. He was persecuted and reviled, it was a televised witch-hunt, without a shred of evidence. The press and police are what killed him. He was a modern day martyr, the closest thing our times have to a saint.” Coming from anyone else, a statement like that would be a deal-breaker. Check, please. But David LaChapelle isn’t anyone else. He has been the most sought-after court painter of his generation, a charismatic holy fool whose work had celebrated, defined, and deconstructed every aspect of the world as I knew it—and who left behind his job as an icon to become an artist. And I was there because he “has a lot to say about compassion and judgement,” and he wanted to talk about Michael Jackson.
“I believe in signs. He was here to teach us. He knew his life had a purpose, but look at what he had to endure. He gave four hundred million dollars to charity, no one talks about that. Or the fact that an entire family and their doctor believe Michael cured a boy of terminal cancer. A boy who was later filmed holding Michael’s hand. People freaked out.” I pointed out that Roman Polanski admitted to the very same crime, and people are leaping to his defense. “I know! Meanwhile there’s not a single shred of evidence against Michael. But people couldn’t wait to believe the worst. He broke rules, he blurred lines. Race, gender, the surgery that made him into an Other. I’ll tell you, whatever he did, it looked great on stage—and that’s where he lived. His house was full of art, and pictures that were all basically positive images of himself—because he knew out here has was reviled, the dogs were at the gate. But he really felt he had a purpose on this earth.” I nodded sagely and suggested we talk about how the picture got made.
“I was flying back to Tel Aviv the day he died, and when I got to Maui I couldn’t get all the way home, I was stuck in a hotel for three days because of weather patterns, and I just sat there watching him on YouTube. I never in my whole life thought I could feel that kind of devastation—the kind you feel only when a good friend dies—about someone I didn’t really know. But the thing is I had to make it home because an entire cast and crew was converging on my place to shoot the sequel to The Deluge. We hd been planning it for two years. The Arrival. We’re driving this old car around the island location scouting, and we’re blasting “Heal the World,” I mean, blasting it, and driving real slow by this tourist-destination waterfall. You couldn’t hear the water, our music was louder. It was the first day I could listen to it without crying. And it hit me right then. I need to do a Michael Jackson picture. I didn’t say anything to the crew, I just went home and called Jesus. That’s the man who ended up playing the Devil in the photo. I called Jesus, and I said, “Find me the best Michael Jackson impersonator in the world. And he did.” It was Carlos, a man who had prayed to god as a child to make him look like Michael.
“So the next day I let the crew know that while we’re taking the new pictures we were there for, we would also be doing this Michael Jackson picture. I look over and the make-up artist was wearing her laminates from the Dangerous tour. Both she and my hair guy had been in LA working on "This is It" until the week before. I don’t know why I brought the sword to Maui. I had four pairs of angel wings made for a shoot for a project at 303 way back when I was working with them in the beginning. I had done an Angels & Martyrs series for my friends that were dying of AIDS at the time, and I had these gorgeous wings and for some reason they were also in Maui. None of this was planned, how could it have been? And yet, it all fell into place so quickly I feel like I just showed up with a camera. It’s not a composite, we all walked from my place in Maui to that spot on the cliff. There’s retouching but it’s not romantic. My retoucher Christopher is the best in the world. We did this one millimeter at a time through billions of pixels, we added flaws, pimples, weariness. It is an impossible picture, but I feel we captured him completely.”
By Shana Nys Dambrot