HE WAS ANDY WARHOL’S PROTÉGÉ, WHO PHOTOGRAPHED SEEMINGLY EVERY FAMOUS PERSON OF THE LAST 30 YEARS. NOW, AFTER A SELF-IMPOSED EXILE, DAVID LACHAPELLE GEARS UP FOR HIS RETURN. FIRST STOP: AUSTRALIA
Andy Warhol protégé David Lachapelle opens up about his colourful life.
David Lachapelle is considering the legend of Lana Turner – more specifically, the (only half-true) fable that the actor was discovered, aged 16 years old, by a movie director while sitting at a Hollywood pharmacy counter. Turner, a striking glamazon and tabloid magnet who led a notorious personal life, was exactly the kind of celebrity that Lachapelle would, decades after her apex, become famous for photographing.
Lachapelle’s own path to prominence was similarly fated. Bullied for being gay, he dropped out of high school aged 15 and ran off to New York. From the age of 14 he’d already been spending his Thursday nights in the city hanging out at Studio 54, surrounded by stars – among them his favourite artist, Andy Warhol.
“I never talked to him because I didn’t have anything to talk to him about,” Lachapelle tells Stellar. “I saw all kinds of famous people [and] I never went up and talked to them, either – I was there to dance!”
Lachapelle was, and still is, boyishly handsome, the possessor of killer cheekbones. He briefly joined the club’s ranks of barely clothed busboys. The stint didn’t last long. When he was 17, he returned to his parents and, with their financial backing, attended art school in North Carolina. When he went back to New York again, he hustled – in more ways than one. For a spell, Lachapelle escorted to scrape by; he also plugged away at his photography in the hope of landing a gallery show.
Eventually, it happened. After seeing his work, Warhol brought Lachapelle aboard at Interview, his hugely influential magazine. The gig kickstarted a dazzling career that has found Lachapelle, 54, carrying the torch for Warhol’s left-ofcentre sensibilities, genius for mixing high and low culture and command of eye-popping visuals. Lachapelle says his mentor was misunderstood – more monastic than madcap.
“He wasn’t always treated that nicely by the art establishment. They nailed him. And kids today… they just think he was wild. They don’t realise there was another time to that man.”
Warhol’s approval gave Lachapelle a job along with entrée to a world studded with well-connected, deep-pocketed pillars of culture. It was Lana Turner all over again, relocated from Sunset
Boulevard to the cobblestoned streets of New York’s art-mad Soho district. I ask him if today’s starving young artists could ever expect a similar start.
“You know, you make your own opportunities,” he replies. “At the time, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I just did the best I could. [Now] kids are stuck with insane student debt – I can’t imagine starting out today. I don’t know how you would.
“I really believe in education – strongly. I believe in knowing art history. But if you are going to be an artist, you don’t have to go to school for a degree. Nobody has asked me, once, where I went to school. So many interns I have coming to work with me don’t even get a history of photography from these colleges. It’s mind-boggling! One boy working here is $160,000 in debt, wants to be a portrait photographer and didn’t know who Diane Arbus was.”
A few weeks before speaking to Stellar, Lachapelle went to a prestigious art college in America’s southeast to receive an award and give a lecture. He sounds conflicted over the visit. “The school was just using me,” he says. “The morning of the lecture, going down there to receive some bogus award, I read about the president. She [reportedly] pays herself $9.6 million a year and her husband gets half a million… and these kids are saddled with insane debt? It’s criminal.”
HIS EXPLOSIVE SUCCESS in the ’90s and 2000s, when Lachapelle photographed seemingly every actor, rock star, fashion model and politician making headlines, gave him the financial freedom to call time in 2006. Exhausted by the three years he spent making his acclaimed documentary Rize, Lachapelle moved to a nudist colony in Hawaii, recalibrated his artistic focus and reconnected with nature. “This has been my calling since I was a kid,” he tells Stellar. “My path is to create, and in order for me to do that properly, I have to have solitude and peace of mind. And that comes from turning everything off, being alone, staying away from social media and being with nature.”
Lachapelle is not exactly a hermit – in the past decade, he ventured out to “photograph people of note, people who are worth celebrating, from Hillary Clinton to Julian Assange to Amy Winehouse”. He also explored environmental and landscape portraiture. Now he is re-emerging from his self-imposed semi-exile to share a trove of his work, old and new. This month, he headlines the Ballarat International Foto Biennale with his first-ever Australian exhibition. Later this year he will release Lost + Found and Good News, the first new volumes of his work – much of it never-before-seen – to be published in a decade.
He says he is committed as ever to enriching lives with his images. “I look through history and imagine a world without art and it’s another form of hell,” he says bluntly. “There’s enough confusion, enough darkness. An artist can easily choose to create and add to both, so I try to create something that will move somebody the way that music does.”
Lachapelle explains that he has recently been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 masterwork Songs In The Key Of Life. “It’s the sound of an artist reaching out and touching you,” he marvels. “You can’t get more intimate with an artist than by listening to their music, reading or hearing their words, or looking at their work. And this is important. It’s what excites me about making art, that communion with the viewer. We have nature, and we have art. It’s where we find the sublime.”
“Kids are now stuck with insane student debt – I can’t imagine starting out today”
THROUGH THE LENS (clockwise from left) David Lachapelle with Kanye West and Pamela Anderson in 2009; his 2006 piece Courtney Love: Pieta; 2003’s Last Supper: Jesus Is My Homeboy.