Home Edizioneed. 11 Tribute: DAVID LACHAPELLE


Written by Gianmarco Almici

Provocation, blasphemy, dream and surrealism proclaim David LaChapelle as an avant-garde pioneer.

An eternal innovator, he has turned kitsch into an iconographic strength by proposing a different way of conceiving elegance.

David, who is highly critical of the nauseating consumism of today’s society, uses metaphor and hyperbole to highlight the candy-coated artificial world of the star system, which he himself will leave behind to devote himself, in a second production phase, to a more intimate and Zen-like reflection in the constant search for a dialogue with nature and its effects.

LaChapelle, fascinated in the last few years by the figures of saints, recreates scenes from the Christian tradition revisited in a glamorous key.

Religion and mythology are merged in metropolitan contexts where McDonald’s and dark rooms semantically become the modern holy temples of the post-modern era and the serial product takes on mystical connotations. The strong criticism, however, is always channelled by an ironic and amused eye that reveals a playful, intelligent and never banal spirit.

Advertisements, video clips and much more; his career boasts a veritable carousel of stars queuing up to be immortalised by one of his shots, with David the photography of celebrities becomes pure art.

Eclectic and cultured, but attracted to popular street art; spiritual, but interested in the queer world; introspective, but close to worldly glitz.

Lachapelle has been able to fuse the physiological contradictions that are part of being human in a natural and spontaneous way, without ever neglecting the rigour and virtuosity that has inspired and continues to inspire new generations of photographers.

Today we meet David, who with great kindness and availability has given us his invaluable time.

Your artistic journey started out working for Andy Warhol’s American magazine ‘Interview’; what human and artistic aspects did you admire about your master and are there stylistic elements that you have made your own and that have served you in your evolution as an artist?
I collected Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine when I was a kid. I was excited by his work. Once I made it to New York and had my first show at Gallery 303, I found Andy and showed him my portfolio. He gave me a chance and that was the beginning of so many great assignments. 

Andy had a great sense of humor and was generous to the people he worked with. He was also generous with his time. He was also a complex person. Many people don’t know that he went to church every Sunday, very religious. 

He would say things like “I’m a deeply superficial person” but in reality that wasn’t true. Everything to him could be an act of art, from his work to the way he talked and lived. 

One special memory that stands out was going to see Prince at Madison Square Garden. I met Andy at the Blarney Stone on 8th Avenue and we went together. He knew that I was a Prince fan and so he invited me. It was very special because it was the one time I got to hang out with him alone. 

Today I am fortunate to have a permanent working studio with administration and archives. It is like a factory, so in some ways being around Andy’s studio influenced the way I organize my own practice. 

The search for the grotesque among sequins and sequins, India, religion, Mc Donalds, pornography, surrealism and contemporary baroque reveal a path of research and analysis of a purely American, hyperbolic and iconic Kitsch that distances itself from English Kitsch and from conceptual and physiologically elite art forms. Your art is popular, street, alien to radical chic. Is this fil rouge in which Kitsch is the distinctive element a clear stylistic and research stance, or was it all born and birthed spontaneously out of the blue and does not demand any rules?
Rather than strategize on any particular style or outcome, I work with what interests me and what I am drawn to. My process is intuitive. 

Throughout different chapters in my life I have found various subjects that interest me. When I have an idea, it is like a combustion in my brain – and the photograph is the output…

Who is Amanda Lepore for you? Tell us when and how the artistic interest in her arose such that she became your muse.
I would see Amanda out in New York City nightclubs and downtown in the east village in the 80s and 90s. I thought she was going to be mean because of the way she looked but she was very nice. I approached her and we got along. We did a photoshoot and then we became friends. The village was really like a little village at that time. 

When a very close friend of mine died Amanda was really the only one who came to hang out with me every day. We didn’t know each other well yet, but she came to keep me company. Sometimes we would hang out and not even talk for hours. 

She liked being photographed and I liked taking pictures. I liked the way she posed. We had fun and we just laughed together. The first picture we did was Addicted to Diamonds. I was making a statement about materialism and people being addicted to material things… 

Ten years after it came out in a book, two of my fans told me they loved the picture so much that they snorted lines of cocaine off of it on New Year’s Eve. 

I was disappointed because they intention of the image is not to glamorize drug use.  I realized then how misunderstood intentions can be and how important it is to have clarity. People usually don’t look too deeply into what you are doing. The goal is to make something so bold that people understand its meaning in three seconds. 

I am always surprised when people ask me if my pictures are sacrilegious. I think it’s hard for some people to grasp that one can make work about both secular and religious ideas. 

Many people claim that your spiritual turning point came out of the blue during your visit to the Sistine Chapel in 2006. A David LaChapelle between dreamlike fairytale, spirituality and spectacle. What did you experience during that visit, what mental process and feelings did it trigger?
I was a teenager when I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time. The cathedral was so peaceful and quiet, and seeing Michelangelo’s frescoes in person was life-changing. 

When I visited again in 2006, I was already deep into the process of creating my own work about the flood from the old testament, but this return to Rome solidified my intent to go big with my idea, which spoke to a storyline of climate change, and a fallen world set in Las Vegas. 

Everyone defines you as the Fellini of photography. At what age did you see the great director’s first film? And among his works do you find one particularly close to your own? Which Fellini character would you personally have liked to create?
I love the Italian directors from the 50s and 60s. I love Zefferilli’s pictures from the 1970s. 

De Sica, Pasolini and Felliini are all great. The Cincetta films coming out of Italy – included incredible storytellers, and each one has influenced me. They mixed the secular with spiritual ideas and they dealt with things with humor, beauty and empathy…. 

The year 2006 is also the year of the ecological turn, a very topical subject. You have moved away from the spotlight to start a new Zen life, far from industrial rush and consumism. Nature, climatic events and the fruits of the earth, always wisely revisited, become the main themes. What do you think of the current situation due to global warming and what intimate relationship do you have with the environment, since you have been living for years on an organic farm far from all forms of modernity?
I look at the world as if it were God’s garden, wherever it may be on the planet… The ocean, the desert, the mountains; this is what God recreated for us. This is the garden.

The further the world falls, the closer I want to be to the creator.

The new language you have devised, which unravels spontaneously between fairytale and gay battuage, between queer glamour and mysticism, between scandal and religious iconography, has always had eroticism, often characterised by a different or alternative sexuality, as its glue. How then, and in what doses, do the sacred and sexuality manage to coexist in your work? Simple blasphemous taste of provocation or is there more to it?
I approach my work with sincerity. When I use humor it is because I am feeling happy and I want to express something funny… 

I’ve had different periods of my work which reflect different chapters of my life, and although I would not necessarily make the same pictures I made in early parts of my life, they are all part of the same experience. When I look at my own work it is like looking at a group show, with many different voices. 

Who is the visual artist and which work comes closest to what for you is the essence of art?
I’ve been influenced by so many artists and musicians, writers, playwrights, poets, and filmmakers. Every artist has different reasons for being great. I cannot imagine a life without art. 

Art has been such an important part of my life since I was young – and the list of influences is a hundred miles long. 

If there was one artist that I had to name that is the pinnacle of expression, it would be Michelangelo. 

I just feel something when I look at his painting, the expressions and gestures in the sculptures and paintings move me in a way that can’t be described.

Which of your works has fulfilled you the most artistically speaking?
My most recent series – Stations of the Cross is one of the most special projects for me. I felt really guided making these pictures. There was a synchronicity to the process, and I think it happened because I was in the right place spiritually and physically. 

The way Tedua came to be part of the project was also very special. I was struggling with how to cast the Jesus role, and going back and forth with some many ideas and approaches to this portrayal and Tedua just sort of appeared out of nowhere. His participation in this series was an answered prayer. 

I think many artists feel that God can work through them. In the case of my Stations of the Cross, I did feel led by a higher power. 

It’s funny that some of the work that my fans love the most is work that I feel is not my best work. I feel my best work, like the Deluge or this recent series, is when I am in a very good place and really listening to that direction from God. 

Your first shots in the 1980s were characterised by elegant black and white images. Then the turning point, which you never abandoned, of bright colour, saturated to the maximum sometimes even painted on negative. Was this a precise stylistic turning point or did the process evolve spontaneously? 

It’s all been experimentation, evolution and growing up. 

At the age of six you took your first photograph of your mother Helena in a swimwear. At what age did you realise you wanted to become a photographer and when was the first work you considered artistic?
I wanted to be a painter when I was kid. I thought photography would involve too much math and science – but when I took my first picture, I realized it was something I could feel and do intuitively. 

I loved the theatrical part of making a photo… making a set and working with everyone and then after going into a dark dark room and working alone. After learning black and white in the lab I wanted to play with color.

I started experimenting by playing with dyes and changing the colors of my negatives. I hadn’t seen it done before but I wanted to try.

The process enhanced the colors and was like a hybrid of painting and photography. I tried a lot of different things and kept experimenting…

Which meeting or collaboration do you consider to be the most important in your long career?
The most important collaboration is with the people I work with. When we are making a photograph there are often a lot of people involved. It’s not just the people in front of the camera but also behind the camera. All of these relationships are important and all links of one chain. We work together to get the photos made and out to the museums and the world. 

Anyone that takes sole credit as an artist must be doing it all on their own but I can’t take credit for everything. 

Who knows how many people you met in your life that gave you a kind word, a prayer, a song, a painting or an album to listen to… All of these relationships are important. Who knows who prayed for us when we were kids…

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