DAVID LACHAPELLE HAS a flight to catch. This flight is leaving imminently, and its imminence is made highly apparent by people associated with LaChapelle, within earshot of LaChapelle, who nonetheless settles deeper into a chartreuse velvet sofa near the crackling fire of the Greenwich Hotel and orders tea and scones. “The crazy ones with the truffle oil,” he specifies, before turning to me with delight. “You have to try one. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Which, of course, is what people tend to say about LaChapelle’s body of work, the Day-Glo-hued, semi-surrealist, visual bacchanals that, no matter what he is shooting — one of the many celebrity covers he’s done for this magazine (see images below and gallery above), editorials galore, the Kardashians’ Christmas card — manage to blend high concept and pop art without a shred of cynicism. He’s photographed a naked Naomi Campbell dousing herself in milk and a naked Pamela Anderson caged in a huge terrarium and a naked Miley Cyrus in solitary confinement and a naked Tupac in the bath. He’s relocated vintage gas stations to the Hawaiian rainforest for an Edward Hopper-inspired commentary on nature versus man. He’s cast random people he met at Trader Joe’s in his shoots, and reinterpreted Titian’s Rape of Europa with Campbell lounging next to a lamb (Rape of Africa, 2009). He’s been called the “Fellini of photography” and a master of allegory. He’s had a model push a mummy in a wheelchair down the Vegas strip.
“He has a really specific, kind of outrageous look,” says Jodi Peckman, the former creative director of Rolling Stone, adding that “the shoots were like theater productions.” They also were often raucous and fun: His East Village studio had a secret upstairs bedroom where, he says, “people like Whitney and Bobby went to … um … hang out.” Peckman made sure to pair him with artists who were “adventurous,” willing to play with and subvert their own images, and be in on the joke.
Many of these photographs, and more, are on display at Make Believe, a retrospective at New York’s Fotografiska Museum running through Jan. 8, 2023 — the venue’s first building-wide takeover by a single artist. But that’s not what LaChapelle, 59, wants to talk about as the crazy scones arrive. No, what keeps him pinned to the chartreuse velvet as the clock ticks and the handlers hover are “things of the soul,” he says. And not just the religious imagery that’s peppered LaChapelle’s work, from a photo series titled “Jesus Is My Homeboy” — in which he restaged The Last Supper in a kitschy city apartment — to his 2006 photograph of Kanye West wearing a crown of thorns. He wants to talk about actual faith. Because here’s the thing: The glaciers are melting. The Amazon is burning. There are existential terrors that humanity is trying to grapple with, and LaChapelle doesn’t know quite how he’d manage if he didn’t believe it was all part of some master plan. “I forget who said religion is an opium of the masses,” he shares. “But I’m like, ‘Well, shoot me up.’”
What he wants to make clear is this: He’s not poking fun at religion but relying on it deeply, artistically and personally. If there’s a takeaway from the Fotografiska exhibition, it’s not any commentary on consumerism (though there is that) or celebrity (though there is that) or identity (though there is that as well); it’s LaChapelle’s unironic attempt to provide a balm, to capture the uncapturable beauty of the divine, one image at a time.
THAT’S A LOT to process, especially coming from the guy who once photographed a naked Eminem with a dynamite dick. But hear him out. He grew up with a Catholic dad and an artistic mom who believed in the “cathedral of the forest” and “just made things really magical,” lining her watercolors along the windows so that they looked like stained glass. They lived in rural parts of Connecticut. They kept a big garden. They roamed the woods. LaChapelle says he knew he was gay by age five, but never came out to his family because he didn’t need to; they understood. At 14, he and his boyfriend Kenny, who went to a neighboring school, took the bus to New York’s Port Authority and found their way to Studio 54, where they were promptly ushered inside. “People always ask me, ‘How did you get in when you were 14?’” he says. “I’m like, ‘We got in because we were 14.’ That first night, we somehow got into the VIP room, and the Village People were there, the Hemingway sisters, Bruce Jenner, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Halston, everybody.”
By 15, he’d given up on going to a school where guys would throw milk cartons at his head simply for dressing like a cowboy. Lured by the “utopia” of the East Village, he left home, crashing on 1st Street and 1st Avenue in the rent-controlled tenement of a woman named Vanessa, who worked at CBGB and was the sometimes spokeswoman for the Plasmatics (“Wendy Williams would get arrested for masturbating with a sledge hammer somewhere in the Midwest. Vanessa would get on a bus and go talk to the local news reporters”). He bussed tables at a nightclub called Magique, and frequented the Art Students League on 57th Street. He went disco dancing and partied at the Mudd Club, where Keith Haring would be manning the door with paint on his glasses, letting all the underage kids inside. One day LaChapelle’s dad showed up at Vanessa’s to drive him down to an audition for the North Carolina School of the Arts: “I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m in love with a DJ!’ And he just kind of laughed at me and said, ‘Pack your bag.’”
Free of the cowboy police, LaChapelle thrived at art school, where he pivoted from painting to photography. After a year, he found his way right back to Vanessa’s, armed with enough skill to eventually get himself hired by Warhol for Interview. He worked at Studio 54, for which his application process consisted of taking off his shirt for a Polaroid. He moved with his boyfriend, the dancer Louis Albert, into a “semi-squat,” where he ran a wire through a window to get electricity and took some of the earliest photos in the Fotografiska show. He shot socialite weddings (“Pretty much everyone got divorced, but I could live off of one wedding for a year”). He thought he’d basically landed in heaven.
Then the AIDS crisis struck. “The hard part was you couldn’t properly mourn your friends because you didn’t know if you were next,” LaChapelle says of this time. “You had so much fear that you couldn’t even give yourself over to mourning.” Instead, he’d fork out $17 to take the bus back to Connecticut to swim in the reservoir near his parents’ house, which is where he was when he suddenly knew that Albert would die. “It was a premonition I had way before he was sick,” says LaChapelle. “Just a wave of knowing ‘Louis isn’t going to be here.’”
As more and more friends passed away, he began thinking about where their souls were going, which, he says, “actually brought me closer to God,” to an assurance that “God is love” and “isn’t the author of sickness and disease and death and suffering.” He found a costumer who agreed to make four sets of giant angel wings for $2,000 — “all the money I had in the world” — and began taking friends up to Connecticut to photograph them posed as angels, saints, and martyrs against the backdrop of where he often went to meditate and pray. “I didn’t think I had long to be here,” he says. “So I just wanted to make some pictures, not for a legacy, but just to have had a purpose for being.” The invitation for his first show, held in 1984 in a friend’s loft one block from Fotografiska, bore a picture of Albert. He died of AIDS a few weeks later, at age 24.
There were other things that happened, too. Though LaChapelle didn’t get tested for AIDS for 12 years, when he did, he was shocked to learn that he was negative. He worked with Act Up. He married a woman for reasons unknown even to him — “Well, we were doing a little bit of Ecstasy at the time” — and then followed her back to London, where he fell in with Leigh Bowery and Boy George. He took the last photograph of Warhol. He directed music videos and a movie called Rize, and started calling up magazines to tell them who he wanted to shoot, the opposite of how it usually happens. He found out he was bipolar, spent a few days in a psychiatric ward, and then managed to get himself out just in time to direct a music video for Mariah Carey. By the mid-2000s, he says, “I had these rules for myself. I had to have three covers of magazines out and a video in the top 10 on TRL. I was a workaholic.” In 2006, after an employee pointed out that they hadn’t had a day off in 11 months, he bought a former nudist colony in Maui while on location for a shoot and arranged to lead much of his life off the grid. It worked, sometimes.
The angel photos are some of the earliest ones that appear in the Fotografiska exhibition, but they are grouped with — and correspond directly to — the most recent: intricate tableaux of religious themes and iconography staged in the verdant wilds of Hawaii. “Michelangelo said he found proof of God in the beauty of man — and I would add to that nature,” says LaChapelle. “I find God in nature.” In fact, the recent photos are so overtly religious that LaChapelle had some reservations about showing them. “I was freaking out, to be honest,” he tells me, explaining that it sort of feels like the coming out he never had. “This is where people are going to be like, ‘Wow, he’s really into Jesus and stuff.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. It’s true.’” He smiles, beatific. “In the art world, and the fashion world, if you want to shock anybody, talk about Jesus.”
He polishes off the scone to the great relief of the handler who hustles him into a car to JFK. He’ll make his flight, of course. He’ll sit back, relax, and take to the heavens.