David LaChapelle was born in Connecticut in 1963 and grew up taking pictures with his mother at a young age. He was only 15 when he left home and took off to New York. During this time -in the 1970’s- he began working in Studio 54. He was fascinated with many of the trendy artists of the time, like Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Richard Avedon. He remembered his experiences with his mother and how she used to set “stages” for him to photograph. Along with these artists he watched come into the club and socialize he was fascinated with Michaelangelo and the way his paintings had a staged look. Over some time while working at the club he met Andy Warhol and Federico Fellini, but that wasn’t until three years later when he was 18 years old. (Siemens, p.7)
It was meeting Andy Warhol that changed his life. Responding with one word: “great!” Andy validated LaChapelle’s early photography and thought it good enough to employ LaChapelle for his magazine, Interview. (Siemens, p.7) If there is one thing LaChapelle is obsessed with, it’s what Gianno Mercurio -a book publisher and museum curator- calls the “obsessions with contemporary society.” Mercurio goes on further to explain his work as “morbidly attached to the search for pleasure and the superfluous… part of the world’s scenery, perfectly in line with today. However, despite their glamorous patina, they recount all that is good, bad, or useful or useless.” (Mercurio, p. 8)
LaChapelle is fascinated with powerful people, whether it be money, power, or their unusual qualities. His scenes are colorful and over-the-top while taking on a baroque atmosphere. He takes reality, puts it on a stage, and twists the meaning into something similar to a fantasy novel or subject of fetishism. Somehow, he is showing the “dissolution of humanity in the system of objects and values it itself has created.” Another way Mercurio describes his work would be relating the people in his photographs as gods in an overturned world (Mercurio, p.8).
LaChapelle doesn’t believe in having a certain “style.” Siemens recounts in his article “The Sculptor of Pop” how his early work was black and white but changed dramatically in 1990 when he opted for “bright garish colors.” Later still, with his team of assistants, he seemed to shoot pictures like directors shoot movies. This kind of control and power comes up time and time again when LaChapelle shoots for fashion magazines. LaChapelle said about working with Madonna and Chistina Aguilera’s “I’m no longer willing to work with pop stars who torture me.” The short story is that he isn’t concerned with the industry (Seimens, p. 7).
His work is done on his own terms. He may work with celebrities but they know and he makes it clear that he is the one calling the shots. His name and status has gained him the privilege of calling the shots for fashion magazines and brands just as well. The work now displayed as art was once used to sell something. In the way that artists like Michaelangelo were at the mercy of being commissioned by the church, the corporation’s commission LaChapelle (Torres, pg. 12).
His work never has text over them, even when they are advertisements for a fashion garment. This is another reason why he is called a “pop artist.” His work is not something meant to be thumbed through quickly. It’s not in fashion magazines, but museums, where his work belongs. His work is not something that should be confused with other fashion pictures “drowned in a sea of advertising” but something that can leave an impact (Siemens, p. 7)
As mentioned briefly before, Michaelangelo inspires LaChapelle. “He has always inspired me,” he says. Mercurio writes in his article “His Photos Shout!” that what Michaelangelo did for the church LaChapelle did for our current generation of celebrities and vibrant sex symbols. All and all David LaChapelle’s work deals with “the fear of finding ourselves in the face of danger, of imminent death, of something bigger than us and which we cannot any way control.” David LaChapelle said that Michaelangelo wanted to prove the existence of God through beauty. Isn’t this what he seems to be doing? Replicating beauty in a heightened way (Mercurio, p. 10)?
David LaChappelle seems to never believe in the impossible. He gets an idea in his head, writes Fred Torres and he does it. Torres has been a friend and college for the past 15 years and knows all about his creative process. From a young age, LaChapelle knew he was going to become an artist. Photography just happens to the instrument of choice. David’s creativity runs through everyone. There isn’t a kind of person he hasn’t worked with. Whether it be race, religion, or sexuality. David has a sense of “the more, the merrier” thought process and encourages the melting pot of ideas. On his series “Island of Misfit Toys”, he accepts outcasts to shine. His photographs often propel people into stardom, like Paris Hilton, whose picture of herself was placed on the front cover of Vanity Fair (Paris at Grandma Hilton’s House) and gained her celebrity status. Other figures who were already in the spotlight like Brittany Spears had pictures placed on the front page of Rolling Stone with a purple teletubbie that raised a controversy over her own sexuality. It was called “homosexual propaganda” by some of the moral majority of America. The cover is one of Rolling Stone’s most famous covers to date. Speaking of the moral majority, the religious right was upset by LaChapelle’s portrayal of Kanye West posing as Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns (Torres, p.10).
“For the many celebrities that David directs in his photo shoots, it becomes clear that they have entered David’s world….although they may be going outside of their comfort zone, his subjects are excited at the idea of showing themselves to a world in a way that only David LaChapelle can think of. They are getting more than a portrait, but a time capsule of their lives” (Torres, p.12)
- JOCHEN SIEMENS “The Sculptor of Pop.” (article (p. 4-7 in David LaChapelle)
- GIANNI MERCURIO “His Photos Shout.” (p. 8-10 in David LaChapelle)
- FRED TORRES “World of Imagination” article. (p. 10-12 in David LaChapelle