Photographer David LaChapelle offers a balm for the end times

For photographer David LaChapelle, the signs point to the end of time – the Thwaites Glacier, or “doomsday glacier”, is barely holding on; raging fire seasons brutalized the Amazon; and critical shifts in jet streams are causing severe weather around the world, he said in a phone call.

In Maui, where LaChapelle retired in 2006 to get off the grid and recalibrate his life, drought has sapped the emerald green island of its color in many areas, he added.

The acclaimed artist and filmmaker’s practice is deeply rooted in his Christian faith, and he has recently been fascinated by a particular biblical passage describing the purpose of the world – how men will be “in love with themselves” during “the terrible moments of the last days”. Around him, LaChapelle saw this notion reflected in the ubiquitous selfie, with the camera turned inward out of vanity rather than introspection. the camera fell.

“In my father’s generation, men weren’t ‘self-loving,'” he said. “(There wasn’t) this self-obsession with our physique that we see today.”

“For Men Will Be In Love With Self” (2021, Los Angeles) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

"Sadness" (2021, LA)

“Grief” (2021, Los Angeles) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

LaChapelle performed scripture in a portrait last year – a nude male model sitting in front of a mirror, tears wet on his face, holding a phone with a distorted image of himself onscreen. Gently curled up against the half-shell of the mirror, it evokes “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, but withdraws sadly into itself instead of arriving joyfully on the edge of the scallop shell.

The photograph is one of the most recent works in an extensive retrospective of the artist’s 40-year career of bold commercial images and meticulously staged allegorical tableaux, called “Make Believe,” at Fotografiska in New York. This is LaChapelle’s first solo exhibition at a city museum, a few blocks from the 303 Gallery, where he mounted his very first exhibition in 1984, around the same time he was working for Andy Warhol, photographing for Interview magazine.

"Fly on my sweet angel, fly to the sky" (1988, Connecticut)

“Fly On My Sweet Angel Fly on to the Sky” (1988, Connecticut) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

“It’s a full-loop moment, and there are pieces from this very first exhibit in this exhibit that actually held up,” he said. These images, aerial black-and-white portraits of friends wearing wigs that nod to Renaissance silhouettes, show the artist’s longstanding predilection for images saturated with rich historical references from the art.

‘What does the soul look like?’

Fotografiska’s architecture, which evokes a church setting in its neo-Renaissance style, is an appropriate backdrop for LaChapelle, who continually returns to religious themes in his work, painterly images of winged men he has made during the AIDS crisis to his famous portraits of celebrities: Kanye West wearing the crown of thorns of Jesus or David Bowie as the Virgin Mary in a “pietá” pattern. In recent years, he has reinterpreted classic biblical scenes in a vivid, ethereal color palette against a lush Maui backdrop, creating effervescent halos for his figures using long exposures of rotating lights.

"Stairway to paradise" (2018, Hawaii)

“Stairway to Heaven” (2018, Hawaii) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

Despite his reputation for provocative celebrity portraits, LaChapelle does not use religion subversively, but seriously in his work. The loss of several of his close friends and his boyfriend in his early twenties had a profound effect on his life, and he lived for 15 years without knowing his own HIV status, he explained during the preview. premiere of the show. He took photographs to leave a legacy.

“What does the soul look like? Is there heaven? Those questions I was asking myself back then,” he said in a phone interview about his early work. “Where does my 21-year-old friend’s energy go once he dies?”

But he was also reconciling his faith with a dark cultural period when prominent Christian pastors castigated the gay community for their “sins” and blamed them for the epidemic that was killing them mercilessly.

"See" (2015, Hawaii)

“Behold” (2015, Hawaii) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

"Mary Magdalene;  Permanent lamentation" (2018, LA)

“Mary Magdalene; Lingering Lament” (2018, Los Angeles) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

“I didn’t listen to people who twisted and perverted the word of God into something ugly,” LaChapelle said. “I understand why (gay people in the community) were so angry with Christianity. I understand, I understand,” he continued. “But I knew the truth – the truth is that he is a loving God. And you see that reflected throughout my nearly 40 year journey.”

A sense of balance

LaChapelle’s output has often been pushed and pulled, as he has produced photographs that playfully examine the constructions of beauty and stardom while contributing to some of the most recognizable images in the pop culture canon, such as the teen Britney Spears on the phone and in bed with a teletubby and naked Naomi Campbell soaking in milk, both taken in 1999.

But his editorial and commercial images are only the tip of the iceberg of his prolific personal work. “Make Believe” includes his eerie Edward Hopper-influenced abandoned gas stations, hyper-saturated still lifes based on Dutch “vanitas” paintings, and sleek Georgia O-Keeffe-inspired compositions of enlarged tropical flowers. Although he has always integrated the environment into his work, his respect for the natural world has become a mainstay of recent imagery.

"My own Marilyn" (2002, New York)

“My Own Marilyn” (2002, New York) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

"My own Liz" (2002, New York)

“My Own Liz” (2002, New York) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

“I love the solitude of nature, the peace it brings me – I feel closer to God,” he said. “And then at the same time, I also love the glamor and the pop stars in it all. And I think it’s possible to appreciate both and be inspired by both.”

LaChapelle also worked on this balance in his personal life, leaving Los Angeles to live on a self-contained farm in East Maui. He told The Guardian in 2017, “I never wanted to shoot another pop star — I was tortured by them,” but he chose to shoot selectively instead of giving up on that facet altogether. of her career. In recent years he has photographed celebrities such as Dua Lipa, Lizzo and Kim Kardashian.

“I wanted balance in my life,” he said. “I can pick the jobs I want to do, and then the rest of the time…just nurture friendships and make up for those missing years where I didn’t grow up in other areas.”

"Doja Cat;  carried away by the wind" (2021, LA)

“Doja Cat; Gone with the Wind” (2021, Los Angeles) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

“There was a time in my life when I was a workaholic, and it’s like being a drug addict because it’s kind of stunted,” he said. “Yeah, you have this amazing career, but you haven’t developed your people skills where they should be. I’d be in a relationship, and in the middle of a problem, I’d get on a plane. I’m like, ‘ Oh, it’ll be fine.’ And that’s not how relationships work. If you want it to work, you have to make it happen, talk about it, be present and be there.”

A change in the world

Amid climate change, war, mass disease and political strife, which LaChapelle says amounts to an “existential crisis for our survival”, the photographer is appalled by the state of the art and culture – which he often discussed. He thinks the media we consume is too violent and that music and art lack a clear and focused direction.

“Art has always been a reflection of the times we live in,” he said, pointing to protest songs from the 1960s that were a “soundtrack” to a turbulent time of war and disaster. ‘activism. “We don’t have a zeitgeist — where’s the music? Where’s the art?”

LaChapelle likens the afflictions of our time to an autoimmune infection like AIDS on a global scale, calling it “the breakdown of the planet’s immune system.”

"The Earth laughs in the flowers;  wither-gossip" (2008-2011, LA)

“The Earth Laughs in the Flowers; Wither-Gossip” (2008-2011, Los-Angeles) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

“I think that’s why a lot of people quit their jobs, I don’t think it’s just Covid or a check,” he said. “I really think people feel that something is different in the world, and they don’t want to do work that doesn’t mean anything.”

Already in 2006, however, LaChapelle was thinking of great disruptions of cataclysmic proportions. He then made the huge Sistine Chapel-inspired composite image “Deluge”, showing a horde of naked figures in distress as heavy waters threaten to wash them away in Las Vegas. But at the ‘Make Believe’ premiere, the artist recounted how a gallery visitor told him years ago that he believed everyone’s outstretched arms tended to take things for themselves- even in the last moments of their lives. LaChapelle, a community follower, wanted the opposite.

“It’s humanity at its best,” he explained in front of the work. “When I did it, it was really about all the hands reaching out and helping each other, even though they knew it was over, that it could be washed away – the end is near. It’s so really this idea that people love each other, even at the end of time.”

"Jonathan's soul was bound to David's soul and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (2021, LA)

“Jonathan’s soul was bound to David’s soul and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (2021, Los Angeles) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

"Archangel Michael;  And no message could have been clearer" (2009, Hawaii)

“Archangel Michael; And No Message Could Have Been Clearer” (2009, Hawaii) Credit: David LaChapelle/Fotografiska New York

For him, he also found solace in human relationships, even when the world seemed dark and rushing.

“I have a very good friend who is here and we laugh and swim when we are together,” he said over the phone. “I do my job and I go swimming every day. It brings me joy, clean water, fresh air. Those things that we have always taken for granted really are the real luxuries in life. .”

As LaChapelle returned from a trip earlier this summer, he was greeted by Maui’s brown hue he was unaccustomed to when the plane landed. But on the other side of the island, where there had been recent rainfall, he saw life reborn.

“I went to Hana, on the East side where I live, and it was fresh,” he said. “Just three months of rain brought everything back to life – there was healing power.”

Persuade” is on view at Fotografiska New York until January 9, 2023.


Leave a Comment