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Jun / Jul 2011
Colour me Bad

WRITER: Andreas Toelke/TCS

David LaChapelle is one of the world’s most highly paid, most sought-after artists. Bespoke queries this multi-faceted legend on just how he is influencing an entire generation with his aesthetic.


Male divas do exist, and David LaChapelle is one of them. The photographer, filmmaker, set designer and overall legend was discovered by Andy Warhol while he was a busboy at New York’s Studio 54 club. Since then he has gone about setting stars into unique scenes, forging a colourful aesthetic that has become his instantly recognisable trademark. When sold at auction these candy-coloured fantasies tend to fetch at least 50,000 USD a pop. And when you think LaChapelle, you immediately visualise a single identifiable image of his, perhaps it’s the ‘The Last Supper’, maybe it’s the rapper Eminem posing nude with a stick of dynamite, or it could even be the super-slick advertising shots for cosmetics giant Estée Lauder. Whichever one it is, the same impression is made – namely that no one’s safe from his lens.

Photographers are good at seeing, but they don’t like to talk. Do you like to give interviews?
I try to amuse myself as much as I can.

What question should interviewers avoid asking?
“Who do you really want to photograph?”

Okay. Let’s start with that one.
I don’t have to think about whom I want to photograph anymore. The people come to me. I don’t have to bother anyone because I want to shoot them. 

What’s decadence for you?
[Thinks for a long time] I’d say the bar scenes by Christopher Isherwood in ‘Cabaret’. The representation of subculture - from “divine decadence” - the divine in Sally Bowles, who didn’t care if she loves one, two or three people. Everything that’s far away from normality fascinates me. It’s the concept of freedom, the possibility of the subaltern, that you can choose differently - that fascinates me. 

Are you decadent as a person?
I’m really simple. I don’t even shop. I love swimming, surfing, hiking. I love organic food and plants.

Are you bored with debauchery because you’ve seen it all before?
No. I just have everything I need. And it’s so stressful. 

There’s nothing material that you need?
It doesn’t mean anything to me. I have cars, I have houses, clothes. I have everything, and it means nothing to me. 

Let’s try something else. What comes first: the person or the idea for the image?
The idea for the image. 

So the people are interchangeable?

So the bare-breasted Drew Barrymore in a messy kitchen scene could also be Naomi Campbell?
No. The Barrymores are Hollywood royalty - that’s a star dynasty. That’s also the idea behind the image: a superstar as waitress - she found her own way. 

So it’s a mixture of personality and concept?
Yes. I make lists with people I’d like to photograph and then I develop ideas of what I’d like to do with them. 

Who’s number one on your list right now?
There isn’t one right now. I have already photographed all the exciting people. 

That’s sad.
I wouldn’t say that. I’ve achieved a lot.

Is it hard to convince stars to be photographed?
I don’t talk anyone into anything. If they want to do it, they do it. If they don’t, then they don’t. Anyone who needs to be convinced needs a different photographer, not me. 

Didn’t you have to convince people at the beginning of your career?
[Laughs] Maybe, but I’m in denial about it. 

You started with sleek black and white portraits. When did colour and sets come into your life?
There were always accessories. My Andy Warhol portraits show him with a halo in the background. Andy was very religious. That was the last portrait that was done of him before his death. 

Again – when did you find your style?
I don’t have a style. Certain things fascinated me, everything happened really naturally. An evolution in the process of a photographer. And at the beginning I couldn’t afford colour film and the developing. It was just too expensive. I could develop black and white by myself, that’s not difficult. Only later did I learn how to develop colour photos myself. The learning process influenced whom I photograph today. But I don’t know what my style is. 

How would you describe your works and what makes them so special?
Concepts and ideas. And that I’m capable of realising ideas. Technically speaking, I can do everything that’s possible. Every fantasy or concept I have, I can make happen. 

But you can’t do this alone. How big is your team?
That depends on the motif, the idea. If an entire parade is needed as a backdrop that’s of course a lot more work than if I’m doing a portrait. The entire technical aspect requires a lot of attention too. I trained all my employees myself. It’s almost always the same people. Everyone who develops or works with my photos knows exactly what to do. I’m really picky about this. 

Do you have photographic role models?
I love Helmut Newton. I became a photographer because of his pictures. Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus are two more. They’ve significantly influenced photography.

[His muse, Amanda Lapore, grabs for a cookie, and he turns to her.]

Hey, stop. [He laughs.] No more for you today. You just want attention, but this time it’s about me.  

[He returns to the interview.] 

She doesn’t leave me alone for a second. She’s always showing up naked somewhere and everyone just stares at her.

How did you get the idea to make films?
I saw kids dancing and I thought someone should film them.

A film on black kids from the ghetto, glamorously packaged in pretty pictures. Isn’t that a bit sarcastic?
Why should it be sarcastic? They’re fantastic dancers, they’re poor, but money doesn’t automatically make you glamorous. Every dancer that can move like these kids is automatically glamorous. It doesn’t matter whether it’s classical ballet or street style. Whoever can dance well has trained for years and now they’re so free and confident because they can move so well. That’s true glamour. I’m not a sarcastic person. 

But reportages are down-to-earth and not Hollywood drama.
All I did was set up the lighting and the rest just happened. 

Films, photos and production design for Elton John’s musical concert tour ‘The Red Piano’. Are these the three sides of LaChapelle?
I took that job of designing the set for ‘The Red Piano’ because the concept was based on a Las Vegas show and it seemed exciting to me to do a Las Vegas show... Also Elton John is one of the few people who can afford me [laughs]. 

Your name sounds how your photos look: surreal, a fantasy. Does this fit you? Do you like chapels and churches?
I love rituals and I love pathos. Yeah, it could all refer to that, but the name isn’t an invention. My mother’s name is Helga LaChapelle. 

And now we’ve arrived at the private LaChapelle. Where do you live at the moment?
I bought something in Hawaii, where I also live. 

On which island?
Maui. It’s a couple of small houses on the beach. A former nudist camp from the 1950s. 

It is fun for you to decorate and furnish it?
No, I’m not a decorator. I have a mattress I had a frame built for - that’s my bed and that’s enough. Everything’s totally simple and easy. Zero design. I don’t need an Eileen Gray sofa to feel special; I just need a comfortable armchair, that’s enough.

Did you always have this attitude?
Yes, always. I’m impressed by an avocado tree, or people’s senses of humour. I have more than I ever needed, too much. Much too much. I always have stuff thrown at me. All of a sudden I get shoes by the carton or some other clothes. Where was this stuff when I was broke? 

Maui is – if you allow me – in the middle of nowhere. Where else do you have houses?
I have a studio with an apartment in New York, and an office with an apartment in Los Angeles. But I’m not there very often. I ended a chapter in my life with my last book, which also includes my life in New York. 

And what comes now?
I started where I stopped. Only with the knowledge I have today. But I don’t want to talk about things I’m developing right now. I make images that are no longer sellable. Photos that are only reflections of my creativity, that aren’t conceived for magazines. 

A man who exposed Drew Barrymore and had Alexander McQueen hop over a field in an evening dress has secrets?
Of course. I’m not a public person. It’s not me in front of the camera. I can only play a role, with my secrets. I never wanted to be famous. I just wanted to take pictures of famous people. 

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