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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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LaChapelle’s book Heaven To Hell is published by Taschen; it’s the third volume in a trilogy of books that began in 1996. The deeply saturated, off-the-wall images have been hallmarks of LaChapelle’s photography career from the beginning.
There’s no denying the influence of pop-art pioneer Andy Warhol in LaChapelle’s life. He recalls the first Andy Warhol painting he ever saw, the Gold Marilyn Monroe, which he saw on a fourth-grade field trip to a museum. “I just stopped in front of the painting and stared at it for the longest time,” he recalls. “I thought it was the most sexy, dirty, glamorous painting I had ever seen. Andy Warhol was my favorite artist since I was a kid.”

Eventually, LaChapelle would meet the artist behind this mesmerizing moment. At age 15, he left home for Manhattan where he worked as a busboy at Studio 54. “I met Andy Warhol,” LaChapelle recounts, “and he said I should be a model. I said I was a photographer, and he said I should model, too. He said, ‘Come and show me your pictures.’ So I did, and he said, ‘These are great.’ I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he thought my pictures were great.’ What I didn’t realize was that he actually believed that everything was great. He thought it was really difficult to bake a cake, so if you baked a cake, it was, ‘Wow, oh, my God, you baked a cake, it’s great!’”

But LaChapelle wasn’t hired right away. A year later, he had a gallery show and people from Interview (Warhol’s magazine) attended. “I got work at Interview and worked there for them for every issue until he died,” he says.

Warhol’s trademark aesthetic would remain with LaChapelle, who says of his mentor, “His philosophy at the magazine was to make everyone look good—the younger, the better; the tighter the sweater, the better. Beauty and sexy and young were real important. Make everybody look good, that was the motto. And I’ve taken that to heart, and in my photos I try to make everybody look good.”

Another huge influence on LaChapelle was his mother Helga, an immigrant from Lithuania. She showed her son a picture of actress and sex symbol Ursula Andress in Playboy and never discouraged anything that was artistic. She once remade reality to make the family look like the Vanderbilts.
“My mother was like an art director,” says LaChapelle. “Every photo session became a drama with my mom. She did everything creatively. I thought that was normal until I stayed over at my friends and saw what their families were like.”

As a child, LaChapelle’s ambition was to become a painter, but attending a performing arts school in North Carolina would change all that. There was a visual-arts program that offered photography, and once he picked up a camera, he never picked up a paintbrush again. “In my first roll of film,” recalls LaChapelle, “you can see on the way to the dorm I did a photograph of the steps, cracks in the brick, those kinds of photos. By the time I got to frame 19, I was in the dorm room and had all my 14-year-old friends naked, posing up a storm. I discovered that people do anything for a camera.”

To this day, people will do almost anything to be in a David LaChapelle photo. His sets are often elaborate, fantastical scenes that characteristically challenge the subject’s persona—much more about pushing the boundaries of what’s commonly accepted as “art.”

In the spirit of the words of Truman Capote, “Good taste is the death of art,” LaChapelle, it seems, wants to shake up the common man’s notion of what’s good and not good: “Good taste is only the thing that people use to separate themselves from the lower class,” says LaChapelle, “what they presume as a lower class. Today’s good taste is tomorrow’s Pottery Barn is the next day’s 14th Street bargain basement. I hate the idea of good taste in photography and art; there’s nothing more banal. Good taste annoys me.”

What impresses LaChapelle is originality. Citing his “heroes” as Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, Joel-Peter Witkin and Deborah Turbeville, he says, “These are people that have specific dreams and fantasies and new ways of seeing things, and they didn’t copy anyone out.”

Since the move to Hawaii, LaChapelle has kept creative, producing the series “Deluge,” another retake on religious themes, such as Michelangelo’s original Deluge, where the Maui resident’s new perspective on life comes through. In his latest exhibit, “Decadence: Insufficiency of All Things Attainable,” it’s clear that LaChapelle’s new life chapter is a product of his excessive past.

But one quality has always defined LaChapelle’s work: gratitude. “I feel very fortunate to be doing something I love with my life,” he says, “because there are so many people in the world that are just struggling to make a living. I worked a long time to get to the point where I had the confidence in myself to go and take pictures just for myself and, therefore, take pictures to reach more people, with a vision that was pure because it was purely just doing something that excited me and not worrying what other people think.”

To see more of David LaChapelle’s photography, visit www.lachapellestudio.com.


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