In a time well before digital deluge and carpal tunnel scrolling syndrome, old fashioned newsstand magazines with neon-slicked, tree pulp pages were the pop culture lifeline of preference. Fashionistas, teen idol obsessives, beauty junkies, art hounds — pretty much all demographics — did everything in their power to get their hot, sweaty, papercut-macheted mitts on them. Amid the vast sea of titles to choose from, however, certain standout covers beckoned. Oh how they teased. In fact, those particularly arresting images subliminally commanded innocent bystanders caught up in their tractor beams to pony up a fiver without thinking twice.
Such was the supreme irresistibility of David LaChapelle’s glitter-flecked, flesh-saturated cover shots. His lustrous, kaleidoscopic images still manage to make the most jaded Insta-addicts do a ‘hot damnnn!’ double take.
Deeply ensconced in the art scene since the gravity-defying Aqua Net 80’s, David LaChapelle’s undeniably enduring relevancy is a rare and enviable coup. Look to perennially admired fellow multi-decade artists like Cher, Madonna and the inimitable David Bowie for brilliant examples of how – in a world endlessly bubbling over with a froth of increasingly hotter, impossibly buzzy-er young thangs – staying afloat and even thriving as a seasoned creative visionary is absolutely do-able. One thing’s for sure, though. The inherently lazy need not apply.
Our culture is deeply rooted in the perpetual quest for the latest and greatest. LaChapelle cites that as one of the most nagging and consequently exhausting realities that drove him to work to utter excess throughout the 80s, 90s and beyond. Creatives who desire longevity must possess ever-evolving, innovative vision coupled with a tireless work-ethic, which pretty much describes LaChapelle to a T. He earned a reputation as an exacting, highly driven artist due to his ongoing quest to create “super special” images that the world had never before seen. Furthermore, he wanted to create a visual narrative that resonates with his audience on a higher level, much in the way that music has the power to stir the soul.
In a way, it seems as though he’s been culturally clairvoyant. Somehow he had the foresight wayyy back in the day to corner the market on what is now a vast, visually va-va-oomy empire of debaucherously come-hither and/or otherwise humorously edgy imagery that looks as mind-bogglingly timeless today as…Paul Rudd. The photographer’s reign as a groundbreaking figurative documentarian was cemented as a result of his searingly unforgettable, head-clobbering aesthetic. Once your eyes lock on one of his sumptuous images, your fate as a LaChapelle junkie is signed, sealed and delivered.
How did it all start for David LaChapelle? He always had a great passion for the arts, with aspirations to display the creative fruits of his imagination in galleries. Eager to make his goals come to fruition, he built a photographic portfolio during his teens that garnered him the backing of New York City’s 303 Gallery. Quite an impressive achievement for a babe in the woods.
Scoring a busboy gig at New York City’s infamous, “it crowd”-studded Studio 54 further propelled him in the direction of his dreams. It was there that the young artist and aspiring photographer crossed paths with pop art pioneer and Interview Magazine publisher Andy Warhol. By the age of 17, LaChapelle scored the career catapulting opportunity of being the veteran artist’s in-house photographer. During his 1984 to 1987 tenure working for Warhol’s pop culture bible, he was given full creative license by the platinum mopped-wonder as long as he adhered to one simple requisite: “…make everyone look good.” That is where the young photographer honed his signature neon dream fingerprint, brimming with controversial, thought-provoking and at times rather cheeky social commentary. The rest, as they say, is history.
Study LaChapelle’s extensive fashion/commercial photography, fine art imagery or music/film videography and you’ll immediately understand why he has justifiably secured a spot in the annals of artistic adulation. His color-saturated, hit-you-right-between-the-eyeballs approach melds pop-surrealistic themes, religious undercurrents, elaborately constructed sets, and meticulously arranged Technicolor props. Before LaChapelle arrived on the scene, though, such a wild tangle of elements in one single photographic composition simply did not exist. As such, analyzing any number of his works feels like you’re taking a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants trip through the Land of Oz and Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, combined.
His signature aesthetic – loud, boisterous, lush and carpe diem as all get out – was developed partially in response to the quicksand hopelessness of the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic. So many of his fellow Manhattan-based creatives – LaChapelle, included — lived in the foreboding shadow of that mysterious illness which was perceived (at the time) as a non-negotiable death sentence. He has said that he fully expected to be among the casualties in his artistic community. With the presumption that the grim reaper would be knocking on his door sooner than later, LaChapelle decided to use his photography as an uplifting, soul-elevating antidote…mostly for his friends, but partially so he wouldn’t squander his talent.
In order to make the most of whatever time he might have left in this plane of existence, LaChapelle thought at great length about what he could personally contribute to the world to enhance it. That is how he was able to arrive upon the guiding force that still drives his work today – creating visual elation that makes people feel connected, deeply affected, and forever altered. Fortunately, he was spared the fate that far too many of his artistic contemporaries succumbed to. If you ever wonder what it must feel like to be granted the precious gift of a life extension, however, look no further than LaChapelle’s entire exclamation point of a portfolio. To say that it is dazzling is an absolute understatement. Breathtaking is far more accurate a description, as is life-affirming.
It’s well worth addressing the ostentatiously perky nipples in the room since they are undeniably pervasive in David LaChapelle’s work, as is the entire nude figure. So many of his photographs appear to celebrate, showcase, or otherwise shine a high-beam light on exemplary examples of the human form. Our culture is accustomed to regarding such imagery as a titillating gratification delivery system. Admittedly, a hefty amount of LaChapelle’s commercial work is deeply steeped in the fashion, music and pop culture domain, where sublime physiques are part of the sales package. There’s a far deeper dimension to his personal art photography journey, though.
In a 2018 discussion at Germany’s Groninger Museum, LaChapelle explained that he has long tried to “rescue the nude figure in photography” from the notion that it’s an erotic device. In keeping with his deep seated connection to the Catholic faith, he talked about how our bodies are in reality a sacred “container for our souls”. This instantly shifts one’s perception of his photographs – even many of his overtly hedonistic editorial efforts — over from lip-smacking eye candy to an exuberant exploration of the human condition, the meaning of life, and what may exist in the specter of the great beyond.
Many of the thematic elements of LaChapelle’s religious upbringing — forgiveness, spirit, possibility, salvation, etc. — clearly play a prominent role in the look of his portfolio. Yet his subjects and the elaborate allegories unfolding around them aren’t meant to glorify flesh as a carnal pleasure. The images are actually conceived to draw attention to a faith-based truth that was once humanity’s guiding light but has since been eclipsed by an insatiable desire to acquire stuff. He laments that the consumeristic machine that our culture worships has, in effect, steamrolled over our ability to place value in what truly matters — the currency of our inner compass.
This heady philosophizing may seem bizarre coming from someone who has earned millions of dollars throughout the years artistically fetishizing over-the-top excess. Since bowing out of the public eye in 2007, though, David LaChapelle has had a lot of time to think…regroup…recharge…and plunge even further into his first and still greatest love — fine art photography. Much of that soulful journey can be found in his truly outstanding career-spanning, five book photo anthology, released by German art-book publisher Taschen. The series includes LaChapelle Land (1996), Hotel LaChapelle (1999), Heaven to Hell (2006), and the concurrently published Lost + Found: A New World, Part One (2017) and Good News, Part Two (2017). Each glossy installment confirms David LaChapelle’s formidable strength as a storyteller, weaver of weighty contemplations, and all around art virtuoso. He has no intention to release any future collections. Gazing at the bound pages of his Wide Sargasso Sea of stirring, inspiring, and deeply fulfilling imagery, it becomes abundantly clear that there is no point in an encore.
The next time you think you’ve laid your eyes on a 100% original, soul-quaking photographic delight out there in internet land, it’s likely that Six Degrees of David LaChapelle will apply. Sure, well over 11 million humans ‘liked’ Beyonce’s literal and figuratively blooming pregnancy goddess announcement in February 2017 as well as her silk draped, infant cradling Botticellian look five months later. Yale School of Art graduate Awol Erizhu reaped the mega-watt benefits of that Queen Bey collaboration but guess who he interned under? Mmm-hmm. “Imitation,” Oscar Wilde famously wrote during the late 19th century, “is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” A cymbal crash for the oft’ emulated yet never quite paralleled David LaChapelle, who invented his own dang alterni-art photography genre way before it was insta-cool!
David LaChapelle Social Media Accounts