Never mind, we have nirvana
David LaChapelle is a man of passion, ideas, intuition, solidarity for humanity and history. Here, the unique photographer talks with Alison Veness about new work, new media, Andy Warhol and working for Vogue Australia.
It’s hard to get a word in edgeways with David LaChapelle. The photographer’s conversation is free flowing and full of anecdotes and thoughts, as richly layered and provocative as his work. Despite more than three decades in the world of fashion and art photography, LaChapelle’s work is coming to Australia for the first time this month, with 90 of his images headlining the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.
“It’s so great having an exhibition; that’s really how I want the work to be seen,” he says as we chat via Skype. “I spent 12 years of my life printing, fixing colour in dark rooms and pictures and printing in black and white, and those years became really important to me. It’s a marriage of what something looks like and what it means. So when you see these pictures on a large scale and they’re not cropped and they don’t have type on them and they’re not reprinted on a digital device … it’s thrilling to be able to have the opportunity to have your work seen exactly how you want it to be seen.”
The Australian exhibition coincides with the release of a coveted twovolume Taschen tome due for release in Australia later this year. He has been busy in the studio all day working on the books, has missed two deadlines already, and now it’s crunch time. David LaChapelle: Lost
+ Found and Good News are releases four and five of an anthology that started with LaChapelle Land in 1996. “They’re a double album but two separate books; these are the final books,” he explains.
Lost + Found is also the title of an exhibition of his work at the Casa dei Tre Oci photography museum, as part of the Venice Biennale. The show encompasses work since the 80s and includes the premiere of New →
World, a series made over the past four years. “I’ve learned how to communicate better,” he says of his latest images. “The new work is not assignments but images that I’ve chosen to make, that I feel passionately about. There was more time to work on developing these concepts. For me, the concept and how it looks has to be a marriage.”
The latest Taschen books feature some of the famous people who have sought out LaChapelle’s talent over the years, among them Amy Winehouse, Kanye, Pharrell and Lady Gaga. “There are pictures that no-one’s seen, that I’ve never printed,” he adds.
The second volume, Good News, in addition to celebrity shots, also showcases the artist’s work with dancer Sergei Polunin and other noncelebrities. “They’re subjects that I’ve found and a lot of dancers, because they’re just so comfortable with their bodies. It’s nudity, [but] not in any sense erotic or gratuitous. You don’t even realise people are naked, because it’s so secondary. It’s about what that looks like, re-imagined in a new way. I think I found a way – and it took me a while to figure out – to put nude in nature in a way we haven’t seen and that’s true to me, and to convey these feelings I have of trying to portray this idea of nirvana, this idea of heaven. It’s something that reflects a new way of looking at those things. I want to give you a feeling, perhaps, of kin.
“When I started in ’83/’84, with angels and the idea of the light and the darkness and taking the light … there’s this idea that things have to have importance.”
The contrast of light and dark needs to count, he says. “We are living in such dark times and so much confusion. I really care very deeply about what images I’m putting out there, and the message and how they look are things that have to have equal concern. I think anyone with a conscience has to fight what’s going on at the moment.”
LaChapelle believes that as an artist he carries a level of responsibility. “When I go to lectures and exhibitions and see young people from all walks of life, I want to be the alternative and the reply not to the darkness in the real world, but the darkness in the world of entertainment. If you look at what we call entertainment: at the movies and TV shows, docuseries and video games we watch … the horror and the torture and how much we get from stories about serial killers, murderers and reenactment … What is it about humanity that we have to sink our teeth into this and use this as entertainment? I really don’t see any difference between the people today and the people in Rome at the Coliseum. How many different ways do we want to enjoy watching humans being mutilated, murdered? And then we act surprised when it happens in the real world, when mass shootings happen, when we’re perpetuating it? I’ve never been attracted to brutality or cruelty. I don’t find it entertaining to watch.” In this sense his work is a reply to that dark entertainment.
He’s not a fan of social media, either. “It’s a distraction,” he states. “You can’t think, you can’t contemplate. When does it leave you time to dream? All these young kids ask me at lectures: ‘Where do you get your inspiration?’ Well, you don’t get it on Instagram, I can tell you that. That’s not inspiration. If it’s already out there, why make it? Inspiration is inside of you, inside of all of us. The answer is whether you are an artist or not … we know what’s right and that’s what forces us to look inside. We can’t hear that if we’re drowning all of that out in all this electronic noise.” His take on photography is that it forces you to slow down. “Photography stops time,” he says. “And that’s one of the reasons why I love this dimension: it slows time down; you can capture that moment. That is why I prefer it to a moving image. To still tell a narrative and to still have a concept that’s legible through visual images, to touch someone through an image, that’s the goal.”
LaChapelle’s road to acclaim began when at 15 he dropped out of high school where he was bullied, and ran away to New York. Although he ended up leaving New York soon after to study photography at North Carolina School of the Arts, at 18 he returned to the city with a portfolio and did some shows at friends’ lofts and a gallery called 303, which still exists today. That gallery hosted his first show, Good News for Modern
Man, in 1984, followed by Angels, Saints and Martyrs a few months later. “We didn’t know you had to wait a year to exhibit again!” he says, →
“TO TOUCH SOMEONE THROUGH AN IMAGE, THAT’S THE GOAL”
laughing. These were black and white shows, which in part drew LaChapelle into Andy Warhol’s world, and Warhol into his. It was LaChapelle who took the last portrait of Warhol before he died.
On their first meeting, he says: “I had approached Andy to show my work – he was very approachable, always out at clubs and things. So I started working for [his magazine]
Interview from ’84 to ’87, till Andy died. It was my first introduction to magazines and it was the most important popular culture magazine at the time, the Zeitgeist really of all things cool – an interesting mix of people and great photography. You couldn’t wait to see who was going to be on the cover that month. My first assignment was the Beastie Boys. They didn’t have a record deal and I didn’t even own a camera yet – I was still borrowing cameras. I loved it.”
LaChapelle says he learnt a lot working at Warhol’s magazine, including the artist’s philosophy on making an image. “The only advice he gave me was: ‘With the camera, make everyone look good; you can do whatever you want, basically,’” LaChapelle recalls. “But what I learnt more than that was that people go in and out of fashion.”
During that time he also witnessed the friendship and extraordinary artistic relationship between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Warhol.
“[Warhol’s] work wasn’t selling at the galleries before he died – the Jean-Michel Basquiat/Andy Warhol collaboration paintings were not selling. They got horrible reviews in the New York Times … I believe that led to Jean-Michel’s death. I believe that once he read that review it destroyed their relationship; they were embarrassed to be seen with each other. Jean-Michel took heroin. He was on the cover of the New York Times as the best thing ever and then at 27 he was dead. And [yet] pieces by him sold for $110 million this year. Jean-Michel and Andy had a really nice friendship. It was a mutual relationship that benefitted from being friends and painting together and it was like they’d committed a crime. I got to see all this. No matter what anyone said about him after that, it didn’t matter.”
LaChapelle doesn’t take either praise or criticism to heart. “After a while you just want to become yourself,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you’re doing what you love and there are people out there who are getting it and it’s touching them, then you know you’re on the right path. You’re having quiet time to try and tune into that voice inside you and not be drowned out by all the noise on social media and stuff. It informs you and keeps you going. You become very self-reliant and not reliant on whether you’re fashionable or not, trendy or not, relevant or not.” LaChapelle’s is a life well lived, exhibiting in galleries before enjoying a 20-year career in magazines. “I was in such a bubble of working back and forth from LA to New York, sometimes twice a week, or to Paris on a helicopter. It was insanely fast in my mid-20s to my 40s, exciting and wonderful and we had a blast. We wanted to do something as different as possible and we did it.”
In 2006, however, he decided to leave it all, shooting a final series of pictures for Italian Vogue before moving to a remote part of Hawaii, where he bought farmland. A call a few years after that move, asking if he would show in galleries again, came as a surprise. “I’d made such a big name for myself in commercial work, editorial, fashion, celebrity and books and things, so I didn’t ever think that I’d be accepted back into the art world … [but] we did the show and it was a success and then it went on to Frieze London.”
This was work born out of pure inspiration, and people loved it. “It wasn’t an assignment, it wasn’t a celebrity. Everything I learnt in magazines I applied, so I feel like I went to school for 20 years to learn how to communicate, learning how to get an image across and say what I wanted to say and be very clear.”
I remind him that part of his magazine work included a story in 1998 for Vogue Australia, featuring Alek Wek and Amy Wesson for a series he called Secretaries’ Day. “Yeah, that was a really fun shoot,” he recalls. “Women in revolt! It was the idea of the secretaries getting a day and nothing would be running without them … this idea of the people who really keep things going. The team I work with, it’s such a collaboration, and every single part of that is so important. That’s why I look at it like a group effort. There’s a captain of the ship, there has to be someone to make the calls, but you’re working collaboratively and the great thing about photography that I love is that moment, the theatrical nature of it … It’s wonderful to have that collaborative aspect and then that very solitary moment with your work and the images, quiet, drawing out the concepts and finishing them.
“There are few people who get to have that. Many people on this planet are just trying to put food on the table and never get to have their artistic side expressed because they’re surviving and helping their family survive and get through. If you’re blessed to have the time to be an artist you want to make the most of that. I’m not only grateful for that but [also grateful] to touch people with this work. I want to totally move people in the way music does.”
The David LaChapelle exhibition is on at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale until September 17. Go to www.ballaratfoto.org. David LaChapelle: Lost + Found and Good News (Taschen, $83.50 each) are out late 2017.
“I DIDN’T EVER THINK THAT I’D BE ACCEPTED BACK INTO THE ART WORLD”