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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

David LaChapelle: Master Of Making Everyone Look Good

One of the most iconic photographers, David LaChapelle may have left the rat race for the tropical paradise of Maui, but his stamp on the medium is indelible

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David LaChapelle has left the building or, more to the point, he has left the continent. In 2006, the celebrated photographer dismissed fashion and Hollywood, the two pillars of fame that had elevated his notoriety, and purchased himself a vast, environmentally sustainable farm in the middle of the Pacific on the Hawaiian island of Maui. A complete 180 indeed, yet this wasn’t retirement, but a battery-charging move away from the Big Apple and the City of Angels.

David LaChapelle’s photography has been called groundbreaking and visionary. He began his career under the guidance of Andy Warhol in New York, and his images are a reflection of a vision that’s vivid and original. LaChapelle embraced digital technology early on to make his wild and instantly recognizable images.
LaChapelle is as famous as the celebrities he shoots. He once said, “I’m really interested in photographing the culture today, as it is right now, and the people that make that up—the Pamela Lees, the Daniel Day-Lewises, the Leonardo DiCaprios, the Drew Barrymores—the movie stars of our time.”

The list of stars who have flirted with LaChapelle’s pop-culture fascination is virtually endless. Lauded for his ghetto-fabulous, hypersaturated and oft-imitated style, the Connecticut-born and -raised American has attracted big marquee-worthy names who all enjoy the immortalization of being one of his photo subjects. LaChapelle’s tongue-in-cheek portraits are often larger than life, with celebrities acting out stereotypes of themselves in subtle self-parodies.

Says LaChapelle, “I think of my pictures as movie stills, and I think that’s why a lot of actors are comfortable being in them. There’s a narrative there; there’s a story being told.”

Captured in LaChapelle’s book Heaven to Hell (Taschen, 2006), which features Britney Spears in full-on, sugar-pop princess mode and a naked Paris Hilton (correction, the hotel heiress is wearing booties) bound in the cord of her own microphone, purgatory has never looked so interesting. LaChapelle experimented with religious icons (no wonder Madonna is a fan), re-creating classic Roman Catholic scenes, albeit interpreted in his unique terms.

“It’s about celebrity-induced hys-teria,” says LaChapelle. “It’s like a religious movement, like religious ecstasy—pandemonium caused by the worship of celebrities as deities. I’m not judging it, I’m just depicting it.”

Provocateur or artist? The debate continues. LaChapelle posed Courtney Love cradling a crucified Kurt Cobain look-alike in a scene not unlike Michelangelo’s La Pietà (Love is dressed in blue, the Virgin Mary’s traditional hue, with contre-jour lighting illuminating her silhouette like an ethereal halo). And in another scene, he re-created The Last Supper with Jesus surrounded by hip-hop disciples.

Knowing no boundaries, LaChapelle transitions back and forth smoothly from print—covers for Interview, Vogue and Rolling Stone, and an avant-garde campaign for Kohler, a consumer giant in kitchen and bath fixtures—to film—directing music videos for Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, among others. In addition to television commercials for Burger King, H&M and Nokia, LaChapelle has directed a feature film documentary Rize, about an inner-city dance competition, as well as recently creating the visuals and aesthetics of Elton John’s “Red Piano” show.

Sometimes criticized for his commercial success, LaChapelle rebuts, “I find so many photographers who put themselves in the compartment ‘fine art versus commercial.’ Time will tell who is an artist and who is not. I’m too busy taking pictures to be worried about the label ‘commercial photography’ or whatever people want to call what I do. ‘Commercial photographer’ sounds hideous; it sounds like you’re photographing a bottle of Ajax or something, but that’s what people call me. But this is what turns me on.”


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