Under the eye of David LaChapelle, everyone thinks they’re a god

Under the eye of David LaChapelle, everyone thinks they’re a god
Under the eye of David LaChapelle, everyone thinks they’re a god

David LaChapelle thinks he is the vessel of a higher power. “There are photos that I don’t have much to do with. I just woke up in the middle of the night with an image in my head, just after praying for inspiration,” the photographer told us in a phone conversation. If it was at first surprising to hear an artist with a long and brilliant career among the hyperstars insist on his own humility — LaChapelle was a pupil of Andy Warhol, photographer of Whitney Houston, Elizabeth Taylor or Tupac Shakur, and made Paris Hilton and Amanda Lepore famous—in fact, it turns out that’s LaChapelle’s ethos, both artistically and personally.

“I’m very happy to have an exhibition in New York, that’s where I grew up,” the photographer said of makebelieve, his first major solo exhibition in the United States. “New York is a difficult audience, you know… if you can make it there… “, he began to hum nonchalantly, before jumping two feet into Frank Sinatra’s tube. The retrospective, which opened at Fotografiska New York on September 9, features 150 works made over four decades.

In the 1980s, LaChapelle, then aged fifteen, left his home in Connecticut to settle in Manhattan. He got his start as an artist in the East Village, where he immersed himself in the nightlife and cut his teeth at the famous magazine Interview directed by Andy Warhol. Fueled by the existential uncertainty linked to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, his early works depict his sick friends dressed in angel wings and bathed in sacred light.

“I don’t spend that much time on Instagram. I’m very careful what I digest with my eyes and I don’t want to look at average stuff while randomly scrolling. »

Later, LaChapelle ventured into capturing big-budget fantasy set-ups, including commercial fashion photography, and explored themes of artificiality and suburban daydreaming. A 2002 photo, titled “I Buy A Big Car For Shopping,” places a blonde woman in a McMansion landscape, standing in front of an SUV crushed on top of a giant Coca-Cola can. Since this is a LaChapelle production, the bloody and scruffy model still seems ready to give us a parade.

Through his lavish portraits for magazines, LaChapelle’s work has imbued the concept of celebrity with religious iconography: Kim Kardashian is Mary Magdalene weeping a river of shimmering tears, while Kanye West appears as Christ at the crown of thorns.

The style of portraiture pioneered by LaChapelle can be seen as both a surreal celebration of contemporary culture and a cheeky satire that reminds Americans of their gravest sins. For the Kardashian-Jenner Christmas card shot in 2013, he collected 500 tabloid magazines emblazoned with the ubiquitous faces of the family and spread the sisters and company through a post-apocalyptic landscape they themselves fashioned from any room.

Besides photography, LaChapelle has directed music videos for a Rolodex of Top 40 divas, as well as a documentary on street dancing in South Central Los Angeles in 2005, not to mention the publication of numerous art books. However, he took a break from his commercial work in the mid-1980s, leaving New York for a remote farm in Maui. Some of his more recent works are inspired by religious themes and explore the divine serenity that emanates from the verdant landscapes of Hawaii.

His new exhibition, makebelieve, is the culmination of this dynamic and interdisciplinary career. VICE spoke with the photographer about the retrospective, his evolving inspirations and his feelings about his legacy.


VICE: You worked for the magazine Interview by Andy Warhol in the 1980s. Did you learn anything from that experience that still serves you today?
David LaChapelle:
Warhol came to confirm an idea that was already stagnating in my brain. While I was in his office, he said to me, “Do what you want, but make everyone look good. »

I also learned a much more important lesson. At the time, my friends who studied at Parsons or FIT were terribly mean to Andy. They kept telling me, “Why do you work for him? This guy is overwhelmed.” They were really cynical people.

When Andy died, the art world didn’t really appreciate him. Europe and Asia liked it, yes, but not New York. He only wanted an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It gnawed at him all his life, yet his wish wasn’t granted until after he passed away. It was the biggest exhibit in the museum’s history, but they waited until he was dead. Everyone was walking around saying, “Oh my God, this guy is a genius! “. I was just thinking about people making fun of him. He was always going out, partying, and I still hear art critics wondering how he could be considered a serious artist.

I witnessed this change. Over the years, it was finally realized that if Picasso ruled the first half of the 20th century, Andy Warhol owned the second.

One of your previous series depicted men with AIDS as celestial angels. How did you come up with this work?
The people you can see in the photos were friends of mine. In the early 1980s, I suddenly became aware of this scourge. [Le CDC, de manière irresponsable]called [les personnes exposées au sida] the four H club : heroin addicts, homosexuals, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Very early on, I had this premonition that this stuff was going to be a plague, and it was going to be huge. Today, [plus de] 33 million people died from it.

My feeling was really real. I’ve only had three like that in my life. It happened one evening while I was attending a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. I was sitting in a corner tripping over the pictures and portraits. I felt something strange. Coming home in the rain, I was crying so hard and had a premonition that this little thing was going to become a massive worldwide Bible plague. And then, of course, people started getting sick. My boyfriend died of AIDS in 1984, I was 21 and he was 24, and I was sure I got it too.

I never imagined that I would stay here for so long, so I wanted to give meaning to my life. It wasn’t about money or inheritance. I wanted to bequeath beautiful images to the world, and it was these images of angels. So I spent all the money I had to have these wings made. I wanted to photograph the spirit of angels. I became very close to God. I have been close to God since my childhood. But that’s when I was really faced with death. I thought I was going to die. Why not me ? We didn’t protect ourselves during our sexual intercourse. Nobody was doing it.

You have also integrated religious iconography into pop culture photos. For the cover of RollingStone for example, where we can see a Kanye West in bloody Christ. Can you tell us a bit more about this portrayal of celebrities as deities?
At that time, I already had my Mediterranean Jesus and my English-speaking Jesus. As I had to photograph Kanye for RollingStone, I took the opportunity to take a picture for me. It was the year of the release of the Mel Gibson film, The passion of Christ, and I reproduced it perfectly. The bottom, then all these thorns that we put on his head, it was really like on the poster. But I didn’t think the magazine was going to use it for the cover.

If I wanted so much to portray a Black Jesus, it was because I wanted to represent Christ in different ways and with different skin colors. The Bible tells us that we are all made in the image of God, but we are also all different from one another. This is something that I found very interesting. My way of working is really intuitive, I just do what I love. I’ve always been lucky enough to be able to follow my heart.

You started out with analog photography and print media. Much of photography these days is consumed and hyped on Instagram. Has smartphone technology changed your approach to producing these larger-than-life murals?
Not at all. I didn’t want Instagram and resisted for years. I refused to have my photos seen in such small size. I wanted people to make the effort to leaf through a book or go to an exhibition. But during a book tour, Johnny Byrne, my studio assistant, said to me, “You really have to get on with it.”

After a while, I got motivated. And it was very useful, during the book tour, to have a connection with the public. I don’t spend so much time on Instagram watching other people’s content, it doesn’t feel good to me. I’m very careful about what I digest with my eyes, and I don’t want to look at average stuff while randomly scrolling.

As a child, I owned Richard Avedon’s book which collected his best works. He edited and assembled it page by page. Each image displayed the most elaborate hairstyles, the most beautiful make-up and a sought-after styling. I begged my dad to buy it for me when I was 14. I swear I knew every photo by heart. By osmosis, I absorbed everything. The difference between looking at an Avedon book and opening Instagram is that we now have to sift through an awful lot of mediocre, weird and poorly done images. With the book, there was nothing to throw away.

As I have never followed trends, even my first works remain relevant and can be exhibited in a museum. I was doing my own thing. Everybody [dans les années 1980] had short, spiky hair and I really wanted to explore the Renaissance, do Botticelli. Currently, there are so many young people referring to things that were done last week or last year. Consult history books and get inspired by arts and painting. There is no history of art on Instagram.

In the mid-1980s, you moved away from commercial photography. What inspires and stimulates you right now to produce more?
Honestly, I pray. I pray for inspiration, and it comes. That’s why I couldn’t give a master class. I was however asked, telling me that I was going to make a lot of money. But I couldn’t have been honest and talked about my prayers for inspiration as part of my process. Not talking about it would have been a lie, but if I had, people would have wanted their money back.

You mean it comes from within?
It comes from God.

That’s why all these stories of pride — i take pride in my work, pride, pride, pride — that is to say that humility is important. Humility. I’m not talking about false humility here. It’s a blessing to have this opportunity, to be able to do my art. There are so many people in the world who experience war, poverty, hunger and suffering and want to make art out of it. I am not proud. I am blessed. It’s a gift. This is something to be grateful for; you have to have faith in God. No one can tell me otherwise. I can only speak for myself. I know where my inspiration comes from, and it’s not mine.

The article is in French

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