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Interview: David LaChapelle and His Return to Art

“I was a paid prostitute”

“It’s like The Jetsons here!” David LaChapelle says of Singapore, where his work is prominently figured at the Art Stage Singapore exhibition. “All these futuristic buildings—I can just imagine spaceships landing.” There is an incredulity in his voice, and it’s hard to tell if the photographer is just joking or if there’s something of a critique in his remark.

In person, LaChapelle is just like one of his photographs: colorful and buoyant, but beneath that glitzy sheen a keen sense for social issues of the day.

His shots usually mix the cult of celebrity with surreal humor, like Britney Spears as a pink-garbed Lolita, which isn’t far off from the teen starlet’s actual claim to fame. This duality of pop vapidity and lucid commentary, this “balance”, is what he says drives not just his work but his life as well.

“What makes me happy is creating,” the Connecticut native says with an urgency and liveliness of someone far younger than his 47 years. “But having ‘balance’ is the new thing in my life. Take care of myself first, and only then can I take care of my art.”

And ‘balance’ is exactly how LaChapelle’s career has unraveled, intended or not.

In the eighties, the photographer showed at galleries before being invited by Andy Warhol to shoot commercially for Interview magazine—“the most important pop culture magazine in the world”, as LaChapelle puts it—a chance he jumped at.

He continued down that road for some 20 years, shooting fashion spreads for magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue, and advertising campaigns for Burger King and Nokia. The awards came—lots of them—but at the same time, the heavy load was taking its toll on LaChapelle.

“I used to do four to five shoots a week,” the photographer says of his career then. “My life was so out of balance. I was working like a lunatic, I said ‘yes’ to everything. I was a paid prostitute—I prostituted myself.”

Then in 2006, the already established LaChapelle abruptly quit the scene.

“OK, I’m a farmer now”

LaChapelle moved to a nudist colony in a “very isolated part of Hawaii in this forest”. “It’s off the grid, biodiesel cars, solar-powered, growing our own food, completely sustainable. I thought ‘OK, I’m a farmer now’,” he describes.

It sounds a little New Age kooky—and maybe it is—but it allowed LaChapelle to explore a different side to his art. Living ‘off the land’, as it might seem, gave the photographer a chance to see things “intuitively instead of intellectually”, he explains.

“It’s the sort of feeling that needs quiet,” he says. “Away from the cellphones, computers and your friends, you hear what your path is. When you have all these noises, it’s hard to hear that, so for me I have to get isolated.”

The ‘path’ LaChapelle is talking about is his move back to the galleries. While in Hawaii, LaChapelle got a call from a longstanding colleague to shoot for a gallery, something he hadn’t done since his days as a fledgling photographer in New York.

“I was really shocked,” LaChapelle says when he got the call. “I’m so known as a commercial artist, a big name as a fashion and celebrity photographer, I didn’t think a gallery will take me seriously.”

But the photographer packed his camera bags and got on a flight to Berlin, where the gallery was based in. “It’s like being reborn; it’s like rebirth; it’s like starting over,” LaChapelle says excitedly. “It’s back to where I started, where I very first started in galleries when I was a kid. It’s just come full circle.”

In fact, a trip through LaChapelle’s work for the glossies will reveal more to his images than just “fashion” or “celebrity” that the artist was quick to label them as. Far more nuanced and layered than your average centerfold, his shots were all pointing in the direction of the galleries.

One of the last shoots he ever did for a magazine, for example, was for Italian Vogue. The set depicted models decked in haute couture in front of historical houses in shambles, a comment on excessive consumption, the artist says. It’s a series with enough stylized fashion sense to be a Vogue spread, but also one with the thought and execution needed for the gallery wall.

“When the world becomes like Sex and the City and everything is about consumption and shoes and that’s not enough…then everything is out of balance,” LaChapelle says on the photo series.

“I really felt the decadent period that we’re in, we’re still in this decadence. Growth, growth, growth. All the countries, all the political systems want growth. But what about sustainability? At some point, we just have to go ‘No more growth, it’s just sustaining’.”

“I have a ‘Murder King’ t-shirt in my drawer”

That was a topic that hit home. The photographer continued in vigor explaining the social and political issues he was concerned with while at magazines—global warming, materialism, oil prices—but couldn’t possibly shoot at the time.
You started off with Andy Warhol's Interview magazine...

"We're living in a very
precarious time…"

How do you balance art with commerce?

“All these things were on my mind and I wanted to express myself but the fashion magazines were like ‘Hey, too much, chill out’,” he says. “So that was a sign saying I had to stop.”

He did stop; but when he returned, it wasn’t in the jaded style of an old hand but with the verve and idealism of the thing he gave up on in his early career: Youth.

“I look at my time at magazines as 20 years of schooling,” LaChapelle explains. “I learnt how to communicate, and now I can say whatever I want to say.”

And like he did for glammed-up stars, LaChapelle was the missing spark the world of fine art photography sorely needed. The photographer showed at some of the world’s most prestigious galleries and museums like the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York, Gallerie d’Arte Moderna in Milan and Paris’ Musee de la Monnaie, the latter of which LaChapelle broke attendance records for.

Fine art was something clearly in LaChapelle’s blood since he started. Part of the photographer’s aesthetic style borrows strongly from Renaissance tradition, with emphasis on the figure and metaphysical ideas that pin the image down.

His work Rape of Africa (2009), for instance, is a modern-day Botticelli—hyper-real, humorous, ‘holy’. In the piece, pink-cheeked cherubs are not brandishing lyres and harps, but bazookas and rifles. And by doing so, he lent the sometimes austere world of art a dose of the comic, something “easily understandable” by anyone, LaChapelle says.

“In the art world, there are a lot of things you don’t understand,” he explains. “I want my pictures to be understandable to all people, not just to those who are in the art world or have to read about it. I don’t want people to have to read about it. I want visual. To me, that’s stronger than the written word.”

“My goal is to move people and to ask questions other people are questioning too. My picture’s not finished until someone sees it and connects with it.”

“I just want to reach people”

Make no mistake—it’s not as though LaChapelle hopped back to the galleries easily. He had his years of experience styling and directing shoots, but it’s “getting longer and longer” for the photographer to finish a shoot.

“Things take longer because I’m putting a lot more thought into the new photos,” he explains. “If they’re not right I just reshoot them. I just did a series of 10 images in a year. A year. I used to shoot 10 in a week.”

However, LaChapelle still shoots commercially “every once in a while”, like he did with the recent Lady Gaga shoot for Rolling Stone (“Just because she’s a friend of mine and she asked me,” he says). As for advertisements, LaChapelle exercises more discretion when choosing who to shoot for.

“I will do something if it’s the right job, if it’s something that I believe in in some way,” he explains. “It used to be I did things I didn’t believe in, and I regret some of them. I felt like such a hypocrite because it’s impossible for me to do a job and not give it everything, even if it’s for something I opposed.”

Now, it looks as if LaChapelle has finally got rid of the commercial cricks in his back—the excessive photoshoots, the moneyed magazines, the conflicting advertisements—and he warns artists to keep clear of the cash bait.

“As an artist, I think it’s crucial that if you worry about money then it’s gonna inform your artwork,” he explains. “‘Oh that stuff sold well I’m gonna do more of that’—that’s death for the artist.”

Given his career trajectory, it’s advice that any young artist should take to heart. With his ‘death’ and subsequent rebirth in fine art, LaChapelle strides down the path that opened up to him during his Hawaiian sabbatical—balancing art with commerce; gallery with glossy; substance with surface. Just don't call him a prostitute.

This interview was made possible by de Sarthe Fine Art and Art Stage Singapore.

Alexander McQueen: Burning Down the House
Chromogenic Print
73.66 X 101.6 cm
Courtesy de Sarthe Fine Art / © David LaChapelle

Images from LaChapelle Studio
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