Imagine that Michael Jackson is a close friend and Andy Warhol your mentor. Imagine, your clientele includes Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hillary Clinton, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Naomi Campbell, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali. And imagine, abandoning this prized celebrity orbit and retreating to rural Maui, Hawaii, and reinvent yourself as a farmer. That is the story of David LaChapelle.
Called the ‘Fellini of photography’, LaChapelle is the celebrity and fashion photographer, best known for his high-concept, supersaturated-color images. If the American contemporary art can be summed up in a name, that name is David LaChapelle.
Born in Connecticut in 1963, photographer and filmmaker LaChapelle shot to fame for his work in fashion, advertising and fine arts. After attending the North Carolina School of Arts and the School of Visual Arts in New York, he got a photography job, while still in high school, at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.
At 22, La Chapelle landed in London—where he felt that artists there were much ahead in terms of creativity. Soon he was hired as a photographer by the Face and Vogue. His stay in London transformed his approach: because it taught him the importance of originality, and he developed his unique aesthetic that is still seen everywhere.
As his reputation grew, LaChapelle went on to photograph star celebrities for popular magazines, such as Rolling Stone, Vogue and Vanity Fair; and has since risen to become a major figure in the art world for his nontraditional celebrity photo shoots, appearing in national magazines for the past three decades.
Exploring themes of mortality and transcendence through fine art and B&W photography comprised LaChapelle’s earliest works. Once he achieved phenomenal success in commercial photography, music videos, and filmmaking, LaChapelle returned to the gallery settings where he first began.
His work probes the metaphysical themes of his earliest work, referencing art history and religious iconography to make profound commentaries on the contemporary world. “I reintroduce my personal ideas of transfiguration, regaining paradise, and the notion of life after death,” says LaChapelle.
A piece in The Guardian (Nosheen Iqbal, 21 Nov, 2017) states, ’At the peak of his output from the mid-90s to the mid-00s, LaChapelle’s visual signature – lurid and dramatic, beautiful and grotesque – popped from every angle of culture. His works in film and photography revel in super-high-end production values, where his immense perfectionist attention to detail changed the size and scope of what a celebrity photoshoot could be; he elevated it to an art form that has been endlessly mimicked since.’
Both the fashion and art worlds have recognised LaChapelle for his very personal aesthetic that is instantly distinctive and inspired by street culture and pop-art. The sweep of his vision encompasses themes of transgender, S&M, Hollywood celebrities - all in bright and colourful fantasy worlds.
Over the years, David LaChapelle created iconic surrealistic images of his friends and idols involved in erotic and luxurious scenarios. Deeply influenced by Surrealism, LaChapelle’s work walks the line between Fashion and Fine Arts, as he often melds canonical images from art history with contemporary figures and settings.
Under his watchful eye, each photograph is a thorough concept where every detail counts: from setting to wardrobe, lighting, composition, colours, theme and mood.
When he was in his 30s/40s, LaChapelle diversified into videos, filming many successful music videos, advertisements, and television show trailers. He has shot campaigns for brands including Diesel and Coca-Cola.
Somewhere in the 2000s, LaChapelle’s interest in shooting fashion and the famous started to wane. His search for a more meaningful existence was reflected in his work, which started turning to eerie landscapes and shots of figures inspired by religious iconography.
The works of LaChapelle have been displayed extensively across the world. Even currently he is being featured in Camera Work Photo Gallery, Berlin (April 25- June 30, 2020), The Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles (Feb 6- July, 2020) and Civita Tre Venizie, Italy (Nov.20, 2019-May 31, 2020). In the past few decades, he has held numerous solo and group shows at museum and galleries such as: 303 Gallery, New York; Palladium, New York; Grand Central Station, New York; Kunsthaus Wien, Vienna; Capodimonte Museum, Italy; Frieze, London; MUBE Museum, Sau Paolo; Retrospective show at La Monnaie De Paris, Paris; LACMA, Los Angeles; and Sotheby’s Gallery, New York.
In the mid-2000s, the photographer known for his bubbly personality and loud, glossy shots of celebrities, from Michael Jackson to Madonna, and at the height of his fame, took the bold decision to move from New York to Hawaii. In an interview to The Guardian, he said that he’d needed to escape the ‘propaganda’ embedded in his work. ‘I never wanted to shoot another pop star as long as I lived,” he said. ‘I was tortured by them.’ Two new books of LaChapelle’s photographs, Lost + Found Part I and Good News Part II, are marked by that angst.
Speaking to Amuse (Nov 7, 2018), LaChapelle quips, ‘Where I live is really isolated. It’s kind of a village, very small, totally remote…It’s good to be alone and contemplate things and have time to think about your life, your choices and what you’re here for…I get to take care of myself and get time to think. Time goes a little slower. You also get inspiration.’
There’s an insightful reference to LaChapelle in the Washington Post (April 24, 2019), when he was asked to do a photo-essay for their issue. In this piece titled ‘David LaChapelle’s Paradise’, he talked about the concept of luxury that was not focused on material things; partly reflecting his decade long stay in the Hawaiian island of Maui. ‘This is true luxury—fresh air and clean water,’ referring to his ‘off the grid’ home there.
Despite leading a hermit-type existence in a remote location, LaChapelle is not cut off from his professional pursuits. A recent issue of Rolling Stone (Jan 22, 2020) features a gorgeous set of his photos on the cover and inside pages of singing sensation, Lizzo. Commenting on that assignment he says, ‘Lizzo’s music is sort of escapist and happy, and I was really drawn to her for that joy that she’s got. She is the kind of girl that I would have gravitated to in high school.’
Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.