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.

VOGUE Australia - - Art -

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”

LASTSUPPER (2003).

REDEEMINGPARADISE (1999).

GASCHEVRON (2012).

GASAMPM (2012).

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