Urban, mystical mythologies: An interview with David LaChapelle on divine acts, faith and embracing nature
You don’t get names much bigger than that of David LaChapelle in fine art photography. He has clicked pretty much every celebrity you can think of. But that’s before he turned his attention to nature.
In the world of photography and fine art, one might only dream of getting the manner of recognition that David LaChapelle received, from none other than the late Richard Avedon.
This is what Avedon had to say: “Of all the photographers inventing surreal images, it is Mr LaChapelle who has the potential to be the genre’s Magritte” (referencing the Belgian artist René Magritte).
It comes as no surprise thus that the name David LaChapelle inspires immense awe across the spheres of glamour, fashion and fine art.
Sure, he’s known to be a bit of a recluse, he’s prone to being highly unconventional, and he actually once hung up the phone on Madonna.
One glance at LaChapelle’s roster of celebrity shoots over the years, and you’d think he’s bigger than a Hollywood producer or director — no doubt, he clearly had more big world-renowned and bona fide stars at his fingertips than most others can ever hope for in a lifetime.
To put it mildly, LaChapelle’s career has been nothing less than fabulous and incomparable. Andy Warhol was his mentor, Michael Jackson was a good friend, and everyone from Leo DiCaprio to Lady Gaga and Mariah Carey had their most spirited images shot by him.
He did also shoot Kanye West as Jesus, but that was before he practically chucked up all of it in the air, and declared that he would never shoot a pop star ever again, saying he would be “tortured” by them.
Cut to a more recent past, and LaChapelle attempted to reinvent himself as a sort of farmer, having retreated permanently from the United States to rural Maui, Hawaii, to live and work from the tropical islands.
His style of photography too has changed and evolved considerably, now tending more towards contemporary art, with an understanding of art history.
This was the man who was once hailed as the ‘Fellini of photography’ with a style defined as being ‘hyper-real, slyly subversive... and kitsch pop surrealism’.
In Maui, however, LaChapelle was turning to themes of salvation, redemption and paradise — and also, of consumerism.
If you were to dig up his past, you'd learn that LaChapelle ran away from home at age 15 to become a busboy in New York, and that he met Warhol at age 17, who’s said to have given him this piece of priceless advice: “Do whatever you want. Just make sure everybody looks good.”
LaChapelle might have turned his back on the hypnotically glamorous universe of celebrities, but he's still active as ever, even working on music videos and directing films.
When word came around at our offices that David LaChapelle was available for an interview, we admit, we froze for a moment.
At the back of our minds, we couldn’t help but reimagine and replay the scene of how he might have really hung up the phone on Madonna.
This call to us had come through from the folks at the Italian coffee-makers Lavazza, who have also lately become notable patrons of the arts, and were presenting LaChapelle’s exquisite and epic calendar shoot for 2020.
Sure, we were already many weeks into the new year, but we weren’t about to turn down the offer. And while we squirmed and wrestled with ourselves for many a sleepless night over the fear of asking him a meaningless — or worse, ignorant — question, we tried our best to keep the focus on his photography.
Lest we reveal too much as you glean over the images presented here, LaChappelle isn’t really shooting pictures any more, he’s creating urban mythologies (with an insider nod to French literary figure Roland Barthes).
Excerpts from the interview, conducted over an email exchange:
This new shoot fills our minds with visions of glorious, fanciful possibilities in the world. Also, it appears to suggest that every sip of Lavazza coffee can fuel wondrous dreams of fantastic fairylands. Was this your intention, in a nutshell?
Today, my photography embraces new themes: I have an interest in the environment, but also in what is happening socially in the world, the contradictions of advanced societies, and even solitude.
Through the aesthetic force of the images, I tried to create a rich imaginative visual story and celebrate the relationship between man and the Earth, the beauty and effort that we are all called on to contribute.
Taking care of nature is a form of art: embracing, protecting, sheltering.
The production here is so epic, it’s almost like a cinematic opera. Tell us about your first thoughts about how you approached the project. What was your initial vision, and were you able to match it in the end?
The subject of the Lavazza calendar is close to the aesthetic that I’m currently exploring. The collaboration with Lavazza has been brought to life with a perfect timing, as I think the critical time has come to create images that inspire hope and joy.
I have tried to express the divine in human beings and vice versa, as I come from a culture based on humanism.
Man continues to be at the centre of my storytelling and I continue to have an interest in the human body and its image.
It forms part of me, but today, the context has changed. I’d like my pictures to be an open invitation to everyone, one capable of awakening the idea that we need to build a new relationship with an environment we’ve neglected.
Was it a natural choice to set the shoot in Hawaii? How much of a home has Hawaii become for you?
I moved to Hawaii years ago, to live in contact with nature and today, what I see around me finds its way into my photography. More than a decade ago, I decided to exchange Los Angeles for the supposed island idyll.
When I moved to Hawaii, I didn’t think the island would have been inspiring me for 13 years. It’s the ultimate setting, an utopia. This is also reflected in my most recent work, which I presented in Venice the last autumn.
How crucial is the aspect of natural light for your shoots? How important was it for you to shoot in broad daylight, with rays of light streaming through, or at sundown, or in the first light of daybreak?
I used the Hawaiian Islands as a green curtain for the 12 photographs, to showcase a tale where the primary elements mix in the presence of man.
‘Earth CelebrAction’ (the theme of the shoot, combining ‘celebration’ and ‘action’) was a perfect opportunity to continue my imaginary journey, set in an idyllic paradise in which man and nature live together in harmony.
For example, during the Lavazza shoot, we would be gathered on rocks by the sea, and suddenly the light would change dramatically, and there would be a huge gust of wind. A dress would be blown away or a wave would crash in such a monumental way.
We could have not planned for these divine acts, or even imagined it. But I have taken the shot at just that very moment, and suddenly, it has become more of a spiritual image and experience for me.
Tell us more about the breathtaking scenery, the forests and greenery, and the spectacular coastlines that fill up these visuals.
I received by Lavazza the total freedom of expression to develop and execute the 12 pictures. My recent work has certainly been celebrating the beauty of nature, finding inspiration in the jungles and landscapes of Hawaii, and ‘Earth CelebrAction’ perfectly embodies the power of aesthetic.
In my work, especially my early work, I often used nature as a location, and I find it hard to see that our world starts to disappear: insects, frogs, crickets disappear in Hawaii.
It makes me sad, the changes are very fast: the waters are getting hotter, and this has been the hottest year ever.
I have faith, and having faith also means believing that things can seem one way, but then the truth always reveals itself: nature will go on alone, without us.
There's almost a moment of suspended animation with each character, in each picture. Did you, by any chance, have instances from theatre and classical literature at the back of your mind, when you conceived some of these shots?
My artistic background is rooted in great Renaissance figurative art, and the entire history of Western art since then has been man-centred.
Today, this centrality still has a sense, but we need to find a new balance between human beings and the environment, and one way of doing this is to return to an awareness of the beauty around us.
That’s why I wanted to make rich pictures, full of vitality, and be able to provide people with a unique sense of wonder. Everyone should wake up and take responsibility for protecting all the beauty that surrounds us.
The visual language here is so powerful, it’s overpowering — it’s almost impossible to describe the depth, the colour and intensity in each picture, in a way that would seem satisfactory. What words would you use to describe your own visual language?
I worked on the months, the seasons, the zodiac ... and especially, the rituals that mark people’s lives.
I wanted to evoke a magical place in which people would want to escape. The water is pure, without plastic, the air is fresh, the plants are very alive: it seems like paradise as it was before it was trashed.
As always, I photograph without editing, without special effects, so I had to build each element of
You can learn more about the Lavazza Calendar project and browse through all the images at the calendar.lavazza website.
— Jaideep Sen