David LaChapelle believes that he’s a vessel for a higher power. “I have some pictures that I had really little to do with. I just got up in the middle of the night with a picture in my head after praying for inspiration,” the photographer told VICE over the phone. At first, it was surprising to hear someone with a long and successful career among the hyper-famous—a mentee of Andy Warhol, discoverer of Paris Hilton and Amanda Lepore, photographer of Whitney Houston, Elizabeth Taylor, and Tupac Shakur—insist on his own humility. But it turns out that’s LaChapelle’s ethos, artistically and personally.
“I’m so excited to have a show in New York—that’s really where I grew up,” the photographer said of make Believe, his first major solo show in the United States. “New York is a tough crowd, you know… if you can make it there…” he trailed off, before fully breaking into Frank Sinatra’s hit. The retrospective, which opens at Fotografiska New York on September 9, spans 150 works from over four decades.
At the age of 15, LaChapelle left his Connecticut home and moved to Manhattan in the 1980s. He got his start as an artist in the East Village, where he immersed himself in nightlife and cut his teeth at Andy Warhol’s notorious Interview magazine. Fueled by the existential uncertainty of living through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, his early work featured his sick friends wearing angel wings and washed in sacred, glowing light.
Later, LaChapelle ventured into shooting high-budget, fantastical spectacles, including fashion and commercial photography, and exploring themes of artificiality and suburban reverie. A 2002 photo, “I Buy A Big Car For Shopping,” places a blond woman in a McMansion landscape, standing in front of a SUV that crashed into a giant inflatable Coca-Cola can. Since this is a LaChapelle production, after all, the bleeding, disheveled model looks runway-ready.
In lavish portraits, LaChapelle’s work for magazines imbued the concept of celebrity with religious iconography: Kim Kardashian is Mary Magdalene crying a shimmering stream of tears; Kanye West is Christ sporting a crown of thorns.
LaChapelle’s signature style of portraiture can be seen as both a surrealist celebration of contemporary culture and a cheeky satire that reminds Americans of our gravest sins. For the Kardashian-Jenner Christmas card he shot in 2013, he gathered 500 tabloid magazines emblazoned with the family’s ubiquitous faces and spread the sisters and company across a post-apocalyptic landscape of their own making.
In addition to photography, LaChapelle has directed music videos for a Rolodex of Top 40 divas and a 2005 documentary about street dance in South Central Los Angeles, and published numerous art books. During the mid-aughts, he took a break from commercial work and swapped New York for a secluded farm in Maui. Some of his more recent output builds off his religious themes by exploring the divine serenity of Hawaii’s evergreen vistas.
The new show, make Believe, is a culmination of his dynamic, interdisciplinary career. VICE spoke with him about the retrospective, his changing inspirations, and his feelings about his legacy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: You worked at Andy Warhol’s Interview in the 1980s. Is there something you learned from him and your time at Interview that you still live by?
David LaChappelle: Warhol confirmed something that was in my brain. One time I was in his office and he said to me, “Do whatever you want, just make everyone look good.”
Also, I learned a much bigger lesson. My friends who were going to Parsons and FIT at the time were so mean about Andy. They said, “Why are you working for him? He’s washed up.” They were really cynical.
The art world wasn’t appreciating him when he died. Europe did and Asia did. New York did not. He only wanted a show at the Museum of Modern Art. He wanted that his whole life, and never got it until after he died. The biggest exhibition in the history of the museum, but they waited until he was dead. Everyone was walking around and saying, “Oh my god, this guy is a genius!” I just thought about people making fun of him. He was out all the time, and the art critics were like, “How could he be a serious artist?”
I saw that there was a change. As the years went by, it became understood that Picasso had the first half of the 20th century and Andy Warhol had the second half of the 20th century.
Your earlier work depicted men who had AIDS as celestial angels. How did you conceive of that work?
Well, the people in the photos were friends of mine. Suddenly, in the early 80s, I became aware of this plague. [The CDC irresponsibly] called [people at risk of AIDS] the Four H club: heroin addicts, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. I had this premonition early on about how this was going to be a plague, and that it was going to be huge. Now, [over] 33 million people are dead.
The premonition I had was really real. I've only had three in my lifetime. I had gone to the Robert Mapplethorpe show in the evening, and I was just sitting in the corner tripping out at the imagery and portraits. I felt this strange feeling. Walking home in the rain, I was crying so hard and I had this premonition that this small thing was going to become this massive, global biblical plague. And then, sure enough, people started getting sick. My boyfriend died of AIDS in 1984 when I was 21 and he was 24, and I was sure I had it.
I didn’t think I was going to be here so long, so I wanted a purpose for being alive. It wasn’t about money or leaving a legacy. It was about making beautiful images to leave for the world, and that was these angel pictures. So I used all the money I had in the bank and had these wings designed. I wanted to photograph the spirit of angels. I got really close to God. I’ve been close to God since I was a kid. But this was when I was faced with death. I thought I was going to die. Why would I not? We didn’t make have safe sex. Nobody did.
You have also infused pop culture–focused photography with religious imagery. For instance, your Rolling Stone cover of Kanye West as a bleeding Christ. Can you elaborate on depicting celebrities as deities?
Around that time, I’d done a Mediterranean Jesus and an Anglo Jesus. I was shooting Kanye for Rolling Stone, and I did a picture for myself. That was the year Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ premiered, and I matched it perfectly. Like, the background, every thorn we could put on his head—it was really like the poster. I didn’t think the magazine was going to put it on the cover.
I wanted to portray Black Jesus. I wanted to portray Christ in different ways and different skin tones because we’re told in the Bible, that we’re made in likeness and image of God. We’re also different. That’s something I found really interesting. It’s really intuitive the way I work and I just do what I love. I've been lucky enough to just follow my heart.
You got your start in analog photography and print media. A lot of photography now is consumed and mediated through Instagram. Has smartphone technology changed your approach to producing these larger-than-life spectacles?
No, it hasn’t. I didn’t want an Instagram and I resisted for years. I didn’t want my photographs seen that small. I wanted people to make an effort to look at a book or go to an exhibition. But we did a book tour and Johnny Byrne, my studio assistant, said, “You really really need to do this.”
I got excited after a little while. It was really helpful on the book tour to have a rapport with the audience. I don’t spend that much time on Instagram looking at anything else because it doesn’t make me feel good. I am very careful at what I digest with my eyes, and I don’t want to look at random stuff.
When I was a kid, I had the Richard Avedon book that was his best work. He edited it and put it together page by page. Everything had the best hair and makeup, best styling. I begged my father to buy it for me when I was 14. I swear I knew every picture by heart. By osmosis, I absorbed it. The difference between looking at an Avedon book and Instagram is that now you have to sift through a lot of images that are so mediocre and weird and bad. With the book, there was no garbage.
Even my early work still holds up and is able to be in a museum show because I wasn’t following trends. I was doing my own thing. Everyone [in the 1980s] had short, spiky hair and I really wanted to do Renaissance, Botticelli style. There are so many kids now that are referencing things that were shot last week or last year. Go to the history books and get inspired by art history and paintings. You don’t get art history on Instagram.
In the mid-aughts, you took a break from commercial photography. What inspires and stimulates you right now to make more work?
Honestly, just praying. I pray for inspiration, and it comes. This is why I couldn’t do a MasterClass. They wanted me to do a MasterClass early on, and they were like, “You’re going to make a lot of money.” I can’t be honest and talk about praying for inspiration as part of my process. If I omitted it, I would be lying. If I put it in, people are going to want their money back.
Are you saying it comes from within?
It comes from God.
That’s why with all of this pride stuff—I am proud of my work, pride, pride, pride—it’s like, but humility is important. Humbleness. I don’t mean fake humility. I’m so lucky and blessed to have this opportunity to make art. There are so many people in this world going through war and poverty and hunger and suffering and they want to make it art. I’m not proud. I’m blessed. It’s a gift. It’s something to be grateful for and having faith in God. No one can tell me otherwise. I can only speak for myself. I know where my inspiration comes from, and it’s not from me.
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