The World Of David LaChapelle – An Interview

Bizarre and decadent, yet pompous and glamorous, apocalyptic and futuristic yet visionary and enlightened, David LaChapelle’s hyper-real and cleverly subversive photographs, in which the borderlines between fantasy and reality get blurred, are a humorous ode to both life and death. Like Alice in Wonderland or the Wizard of Oz, David LaChapelle creates his own visionary world with hyper-real characters and objects. LaChapelle is the Fellini of photography for a reason! Interview by Katerina Kombercova.

David LaChapelle, Amanda As Andy Warhol’s Liz, 2003, © David LaChapelle
David LaChapelle, Amanda As Andy Warhol’s Liz, 2003, © David LaChapelle

Inspired by Andy Warhol, David LaChapelle started his career in 1980s when he was offered to work for the Interview magazine. His talent and originality of his contribution was soon recognised by people such as Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton, artists of extraordinary significance to David LaChapelle. With their erotic gloss and their exaggerated aesthetics, LaChapelle’s photographs appeared on the covers and pages of magazines such as The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Face, Vanity Fair,  Vogue Italia, or Vogue Paris, depicting David Duchovny dressed in lycra bondage trousers, Kanye West as Black Jesus, or a turbaned Elizabeth Taylor looking like a $5 fortune teller. During the past three decades, LaChapelle has created an extraordinary and unmistakeable oeuvre that had a lasting influence on the aesthetics of the visual realm. LaChapelle is without a doubt one of today’s most respected artists, whose style can be compared to no one. He has evolved his photography into an idiosyncratic and highly personal combination of reportage and surrealism. The OstLicht Gallery in Vienna presents a comprehensive exhibition called ‘Once in the Garden’, featuring well-known icons of the photographer alongside three of his latest groups of works.

KALTBLUT: In 2006 you made a dramatic break from the fashion and celebrity scenes, moving to Maui, where you turned a former nudist colony compound into your private sanctuary. What prompted your move away from fashion and celebrity photography?

David LaChapelle: I was feeling that it was just time to stop. Artists And Prostitutes came out, which was the Taschen anthology of everything I’ve ever done, and simultaneously the third edition of the trilogy – LaChapelle, Heaven To Hell. I was getting signs in my heart that this was the real end with the fashion and celebrity photography. I was slowly falling out of love. I thought that it would be good to let younger photographers do this work.

It got more and more difficult to get my pictures published as they were dealing with Jesus is my Homeboy. The very last series I have done was about the hurricanes with girls posing in front of the destroyed houses. They were taken in June, before Katrina hit, and were about to be published in Time and Vogue. People were complaining, making negative comments…. They didn’t know that it takes a long time for pictures to be published.  So I shot them and then the editor called and said: ‘They think it’s about Katrina, they think it’s about hurricanes.’  And I said: ‘It is about hurricanes!  I didn’t know that Katrina is gonna happen.’

David LaChapelle, Gas Shell, 2014 © David LaChapelle
David LaChapelle, Gas Shell, 2014 © David LaChapelle

My mom lives in Florida and then all these hurricanes were coming. I was leaving the house and my mom and sister were putting the hurricane shutters – these metal things on the windows –  and I had to leave to catch a plane. I felt so helpless when I was thinking so much about the climate change, at the same time working for the magazines. And everyone was obsessed with the Sex and the City which was the big thing, women drinking Cosmopolitans, obsessed with shoes… It got so materialistic even more so when I was younger, even more materialistic then in 1970’s when I first became aware of disco. Possessions, possessions, money and greed –  the more money, the more power! You know it felt wrong that I was working for the magazines. I was in this paradox. I was trying to make pictures of fashion, showing fashion but yet I wanted to talk about the climate change … This is Viktor & Rolf and the houses behind are destroyed from hurricane but I was showing the dresses and people though he is making fun of the hurricane, that he is disrespectful. The images were shot 3 months prior to Katrina. That was another sign telling me to stop.

Then quitting off the Madonna video. I told her I am not gonna do this anymore. I told myself I am not gonna be tortured anymore by the pop stars. When I was younger, 20 or 30 years old, I thought differently. You develop, you grow.

KALTBLUT: The pop and movie stars were replaced by refineries and gas stations in your latest series of work called LAND SCAPES, in which no high-profile figures, in fact no humans appear at all. What’s inspiring you most now coming into a new artistic phase?

David: I have always gone to nature, since I was a kid.  I was brought up in the woods, I did not have lots of friends, so I spent lot of time alone. My mother always loved to live in the forest; she loved gardens, birds and nature and taught me a deep respect for that. She taught me about growing food and vegetables and to take care of animals. They also have feelings. So nature was always something sacred for me, the place I can go, meditate and pray. It’s like a church in the nature for me. So having this place in Maui, it’s sacred. But I think that we can find nature anywhere, even in the city, even here under the tree. It’s important to turn off everything and hear ourselves.

David LaChapelle, Rebirth Of Venus, 2009 © David LaChapelle
David LaChapelle, Rebirth Of Venus, 2009 © David LaChapelle

KALTBLUT: As human beings we accept lot of things and adapt quickly to certain situations and surroundings. What is your vision of humanity, your ideal life vision?

David: That’s the series I am working on next, the paradise series. Now that I have talked about the great disruption and the industrial revolution, the apocalypse idea in my work –  I have done all that –  my next step is to  find heaven for me, the paradise. I have been working on the series for a couple of years now. We are shooting them  in Hawaii and I am still discovering how to make them. It is paradise, nirvana- it’s HEAVEN – a place that can exist in our hearts, a place that can exist in any afterlife, a place that we can create in our lives sometimes, sometimes we cannot because of the circumstances. We have the ability to make the connection, make the time to pray and meditate. We have to find our inner voice that will guide us.  But we can only find it if we get quiet. I find it in the nature, since I was a kid. So these images that I have been working on for three or four years now, I will be probably working on them till I die as I am trying to find the ultimate joy and express that in a photograph and express the ideas of heaven and metaphysical ideas. I have always been interested in what happens after we die.

I shot the Emmanuel as Angel  (1985) picture before the digital age came. I was 22 in 1985. I took all the money I had and first started the colour printing. I painted on the tiny negative with a little brush to make this magical thing. Green as magenta, yellow as blue! I had the wings designed…I think that the ancient artists had it right to describe the soul in such a way. It’s a perfect symbol for me, the soul that can fly like the bird. This is the best thing I ever did! This is what I want to get again, going back to the idea of paradise and joy.

David LaChapelle, Once in the Garden (1), 2014 © David LaChapelle
David LaChapelle, Once in the Garden (1), 2014 © David LaChapelle

KALTBLUT: Through your photographs you raise existential questions of spirituality and religion, gender and sexuality, or humanity and exploitation. Your photographs may be considered shocking, provocative, or even controversial but they primarily, I would say, evoke consideration and re-consideration of our social and moral values. Do you intend to seduce viewers into a critical self-reflection of the society? 

David: Thank you, thank you….thank you for understanding! It’s music when I hear someone getting it! It’s just so nice to be understood! I am so tired of being misunderstood. I can’t control what people think. I can’t control if they think it’s all done in Photoshop or they think it’s a kitsch, that’s the word they love to use. I can’t control that. I can’t control when they gonna see Carmen and think that it’s obscene and pornographic yet they gonna go to watch the horror movies and watch someone get burnt to death and shot over and over and over and let their children play video games but not looking at human body. I can’t control that, I am not God. But I can only do my role here on this planet. The role I feel I was given since I was a kid was to be making art and I only wanted to give and I never let money be my God. I always wanted to give something to the world before I die because I thought I was gonna die of AIDS when I was taking pictures till my 30s, when I got the courage to get finally tested.

Sometimes when I worked for magazines I was just being an escapist, sometimes it got deeper and I was playing the themes that were in my head. I was shooting every day. You don’t want to take the same picture every day. On some days you feel like Oh, I want to make something funny, just escapism, especially during the dark times when the climate change started happening and when you sort of hear about it, you become very conscious about what’s happening with the nature. This was on my mind and I thought I needed to talk about it. …..and we were shopping and shopping, like that’s our salvation, that’s gonna buy us happiness. And I was working for the very magazines that were pushing it. So that was the end, it was time to move on and to move to Hawaii.

David LaChapelle, Once in the Garden (2), 2014 © David LaChapelle
David LaChapelle, Once in the Garden (2), 2014 © David LaChapelle

KALTBLUT: Do you think that certain enlightenment can be prompted via art, in your case photography?

David: I wasn’t moving to the gallery world, I thought that I was just done with photography. Everyone was saying ‘Are you crazy? This is what you always wanted.’ No no, I am not crazy, I am crazy but not. I knew that there was time to move on and to let another generation work, those who were excited about these things. I still love the people who make the fashion art, but it got out of balance. If you look at the Egyptians, at what they wore and the decorations they put on their bodies or the native Americans, or the Aborigines who paint their faces…It’s the human instinct. Every culture has beauty and decorations of body. This is not of itself superficial, this is very human. Decorating when it becomes out of balance, when it becomes about the materialism, about how many shoes, how many handbags, how expensive they are, and the status, then it’s no longer just about an expression or looking beautiful, that’s more about  ‘I HAVE MONEY, I AM RICH’. It felt out of balance. It’s about having more and the greed. Is happiness gonna come from your next purchase?! This I don’t believe in. But I love fashion and beauty and all those things, I still do but I think that it has changed the shift, that the greed is ruling the planet right now. We are in this time of corporations being so greedy and global. Some people want to call it the apocalypse. When I was born it was half the people on the planet. It has doubled in my life time. This is not sustainable for the earth; of course we are going somewhere. So we have to live preciously, we have to live each day with care!

David LaChapelle, Amanda Lepore: Addicted to Diamonds, 1997 © David LaChapelle
David LaChapelle, Amanda Lepore: Addicted to Diamonds, 1997 © David LaChapelle

KALTBLUT: In the series of photographs ‘Once in the Garden’ that are part of the ongoing exhibition of the same name at the gallery OstLicht in Vienna you captured transgender model Carmen Carrera in the nude, both as a man and a woman. ‘I’m Adam, I’m Eve, I’m me’, the caption on the poster promoting Life Ball 2014 reads. How do you perceive the human body?

David: I had this idea of the new goddess, who is both male and female and who possesses both energies. But the female was a bit more prominent. The female is dominant.  The matriarchal society 1300 years ago in Egypt was a peaceful society; that’s where you had no war for thousands of years! When they switched to patriarchal society, when the male energy ruled, we became obsessed with the greed. Now we are in this time of intense greed! For me this beautiful figure of Carmen in the garden is the male and female together, with the female being a bit more dominant. So to me Carmen is the goddess and a beautiful person who is very special; like a unicorn or a mythical figure. I want to rescue the human body from just being looked at as a sexual or an ideal pornography object, especially in photography. Proof of God exists in the beauty of man and if you look at some of Michelangelo’s sculptures, the female sculptures almost look like man with breasts and muscles together. As an artist you have a choice. You can add more confusion and darkness to the world or you can shine a light, make a beauty. For me Carmen IS BEAUTY!

Portrait David LaChapelle

KALTBLUT: It’s not the first time that a transgender person has been the subject of an art piece. Why is it still causing such a fuss today?

David: I don’t know if people are mad at the penis or the breast, or the fact that they are on the same body. I don’t know, what’s causing this fuss. I would think that the torture in movies and on television would cause more alarm than a woman who has a male organ, a male sex. I would think that the alarm bell should be ringing over the horror movies and what we look at as entertainment which is becoming such a grotesque, with torture, violence and cruelty. It’s a paradox that we look at these things as entertainment. We let our children play video games that are so violent. That to me is an obscenity not the body. There is nothing ugly in sexuality or in the body. It’s human!

KALTBLUT: The posters that were placed in public spaces in Vienna caused a heated discussion and controversy among the public and the far-right party FPÖ which has filed a lawsuit against it. One grandmother took to the streets to paint over every penis in town. Do you think that this would happen in any other country in a similar way? In other words, did our society reached the stage of TOLERANCE towards gender, race, social class,……

David: In America we couldn’t even have shown these pictures and so when I saw the ‘Oma’, I was working in LA on a short music video for my friend Daphne, whom I shown the picture of the grandmother painting over the penis. She looked so happy but then I learned about the FPÖ, who were suing the Life Ball and I got really scared, I thought ‘Oh my God’. No words can describe the Life Ball, it was so magical! I was never meant to shock or scare anyone. I never want to make dark images; it’s always in a light. My mother said ‘stay in the light’. I think that the world is really in very dark ages. In America this could have never been showed, we are even more lost over there than in Europe. We are very lost! We are the ones making the torture, inventing these things; they are coming out of America, out of Hollywood. When they see that someone bought this picture for 180 thousands Euros (people understand money, again we are talking about greed) to reduce suffering in Africa,  India or the Caribbean, maybe they will question that because they understand money. Someone valued that enough to spend 180 thousand Euros for the same image that they hate so much. But then the money isn’t gonna end in someone’s pocket it’s gonna help reduce suffering, that’s going to really confuse the whole thing. The art won that night, they didn’t win!

The cruelty, war and violence, this is evil, wrong and dark and that’s what we should hide from the children, not a human body! I don’t think that this image was pushing anything, it was not erotic, not a sex act. It was simply a nude person who posses both the male and female energy –  the new mythological figure, the GODDESS. And Life Ball put this image out into the world, so they finished the project for me. Because if I would just have taken this photograph it would end up in a gallery, it would not have been seen. For me a picture to been seen on a scale like that, that’s when it’s finished. When it is in the world, not just the art world, or fashion world, or in a magazine, or the music world or the sports world…. But in the world to create that dialogue, hopefully tolerance and understanding, little bit of compassion or strike of though. It’s a lot of money to pay for a picture that I hate so much. Maybe people will think about that maybe not, hmm, but that’s what we can hope for. You can’t change people’s minds, we are not God. We can do our best to do what we do, whatever job we have to bring sort of goodness out there. But we can’t change people. As an artist what I can do is to communicate!

KALTBLUT: ‘If you want reality take a bus’. Do you take a bus sometimes, David?

David: Gosh I haven’t taken a bus in a long time.

Interview by Katerina Kombercova.

David LaChapelle, Land Scape: Kings Dominion, 2013 © David LaChapelle
David LaChapelle, Land Scape: Kings Dominion, 2013 © David LaChapelle

What, Where, When?

David LaChapelle ONCE IN THE GARDEN, June 2 – September 14, 2014
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Peter Coeln and Reiner Opoku and published by Brandstätter Verlag (EUR 19.90). Five percent of the net artwork sales profit will be donated to AIDS LIFE.
OstLicht. Galerie für FotografieAbsberggasse 27, A-1100 Wien
Opening hours:
Gallery: Wed–Sun 12–6 pm, public holidays: 12–6 pm and by appointment
Library: Wed–Fr 12–6 pm
closed on public holidays