David LaChapelle is arguably one of the world’s most imaginative and prolific photographers. Having dropped out of school at 15, he was discovered by Andy Warhol just two years later. LaChapelle scored himself a sweet gig as a photographer for Interview magazine, which was founded by Warhol in the late 1960s. Around this time, LaChapelle was living it up in NYC and hanging out with the likes of Keith Haring and Jean-Michael Basquiat.
His talents were immediately recognised by those who knew him and he quickly made a name for himself as a commercial artist. Soon, he was frequently working on high profile advertising campaigns. He was also hired by magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. He later directed music videos for musicians such as Gwen Stefani, Elton John, Moby and Florence and the Machine amongst others.
LaChapelle came from a fine art background. In his early works, he experimented with black and white photography, using it as a vehicle to explore deeply personal themes such as morality during the AIDS epidemic. These images were often Renaissance inspired and addressed ideas of the metaphysical, something he would revisit later in his career. His earlier approach is very different to the aesthetic that he is best known for. Many of his recent productions contain heavily saturated surrealist pieces which embrace the post-pop style.
His work has previously featured subjects like that of Tupac, Bjork, Rose McGowan, Angelina Jolie, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Hilary Clinton, Madonna and Leonardo DiCaprio. While Warhol’s obsession with consumer culture became the basis for his art, LaChapelle obsessed over celebrity culture and the lifestyles of the wealthy. This infatuation possibly stemmed from his time working as a busboy in the infamous Studio 54, where he was surrounded by the lavish glamour of the rich and the famous.
I first came across David LaChapelle as a teenager, as my mother and I flicked through the channels on Sky (back in the days before Netflix and dodgy streaming sites), we came across a documentary about him on one of those weird artsy channels that sometimes show small budget operas and other such things. I immediately fell in love with his work. The first thing that struck me was his stunning use of colour, the attention to detail when it came to his sets, costumes and placement was also fascinating. LaChapelle is also a master storyteller, often, many of his pieces have their own easily identifiable narrative. If I’m being honest, another appealing aspect has always been seeing my favourite celebrities submerged in surrealist, post-pop works of art. His 1999 book Hotel LaChapelle was gifted to me when I was 16 and it’s still one of my most cherished belongings. It’s a massive hardback book filled with images of actors, models and musicians.
In his latest collections, LaChapelle has returned to his fine art roots. He is now exploring themes that reference art history and religious iconography which he implements as a means of posing profound perspectives on our modern world. Just last year, I was visiting my parents in Prague. We happened to come across a gallery that was exhibiting his Deluge collection. Of course, we went to see it and it did not disappoint! I hadn’t followed up on LaChapelle in a couple of years so I hadn’t previously seen any of the pieces included in Deluge. The fact that it was all new to me made it even more impressive. It was amazing to see these gigantic prints hanging there. They were glorious and bursting with vivid colours. Two pieces, in particular, blew me away; his ‘Self-Portrait as House’ (pictured below) and ‘Deluge’ which can be viewed here. If you study Self-Portrait as House you can see elements of his own understanding of his sexuality amongst other very personal aspects included in the piece.
LaChapelle feared that his desire to work in commercial photography would result in his art not being taken seriously. However, he believes that his commercial work was a crucial step on the road to creating what has proven to be his most mature and politically charged works yet. Deluge, inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, was the first collection LaChapelle had ever produced with the intention of showcasing it in galleries and museums.
“[Deluge] symbolises the decline of universal values such as kindness and empathy and the ever-growing attraction to material goods. Referencing art history, religion and pop culture, Deluge depicts men, women and children refugees in the midst of the apocalyptic storm.” Guy Hepner
Even before Deluge, his art often touched on taboo subject matter, providing a unique cultural commentary. His work often reflected queer, erotic and highly sexual themes. He challenged heteronormative perceptions of gender roles, he explored ideas of identity from a number of perspectives. Many of his pieces are nudes – men and women of all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities are presented naked. These nudes are at times borderline pornographic in nature and other times they’re presented in a way that reflects the nudes we see in classic paintings. Even his commercial work provides a critique of a wide variety of themes. He has made bold statements concerning political issues, drug abuse, consumerism, faith and narcissism.
Since Deluge, LaChapelle has released another collection, ‘A New World‘ and of course, it’s equally stunning. It once again delves into the recurring motif of the metaphysical, creating vivid hyper-surreal narratives. In this collection, he uses an old technique where the artist paints over negatives to produce the most beautiful trippy neon colours. It also appears to have been influenced by different ideas of spirituality and various religions. There are obvious themes of Christian and Eastern religious symbolism present in the pieces. The following images are my favourite pieces from this collection.
I honestly had a hard time deciding which pieces of his to include in this post, so if you like what you see, I’d recommend looking up some more of his stuff or if you get an opportunity to catch an exhibition of his then go for it! I’ve included the following videos of LaChapelle discussing the New World collection as well as a short interview with Vice magazine for anyone who wants to know more about David LaChapelle and his art. Don’t be afraid to leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this post!