Imagine a world where Kanye West is a black Jesus and Sergei Polunin, a Russian ballet dancer, resembles a Hindu deity. David LaChapelle, an American photographer, has spent the last three decades making sumptuous, surreal images which, with their frequent invocations of the divine, often elevate their subjects – from Hollywood actors and pop stars to the odd politician – into deities. Many of these images have been brought together in two glossy new compendiums of his work, “Lost + Found, Part I” and “Good News, Part II”, which chart the arc of his career.
He began taking photographs in the 1980s – ethereal Renaissance-inspired portraits of friends and models, which he exhibited in New York City – before landing a job as a photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. He went on to shoot stories for Vogue and Rolling Stone in the 1990s and, in the 2000s, started directing music videos and shooting luxury advertisements. As his career progressed, he developed a distinctive style, full of glamour, decadence and fantasy, often designing baroque set-pieces and garlanding his celebrity sitters with religious symbols (LaChapelle is Catholic).
To the fashion world, LaChapelle is the eccentric who references Old Master paintings in photo shoots. To his art-world critics, he is the sell-out who abandoned serious art for advertising. His two new books paint a portrait of a more complicated artist. “Good News, Part II” and “Lost + Found, Part I”, which begins with the line, “I once was lost…”, a reference to the hymn “Amazing Grace”, are the final two volumes in a sprawling five-book anthology. They document his career from the commercial hedonism of his high-profile celebrity shoots from the 1980s and 1990s through to his recent series of semi-allegorical images depicting mankind’s communion with nature, made on the island of Maui in Hawaii, where he retreated to from Los Angeles in 2006. Many of his photographs seem, at first glance, to celebrate celebrity, but his over-the-top style implies a tongue-in-cheek critique of society’s slavish devotion to the rich and famous. At its best, his work exposes the absurdity of a world in which materialism is a religion and fame a modern reincarnation of the divine.
“Tupac Shakur: Still I Rise” (1996) from “Good News (Part II)”
One of LaChapelle’s best-known magazine photo shoots from the 1990s featured rapper Tupac Shakur. The shoot, “Becoming Clean”, included a somewhat heavy-handed photograph of Tupac soaping up in a bathtub (he had recently been released from prison), along with another series of images in which the rapper posed as a slave on a cotton field (though he remains resolutely recognisable with his signature front-tie bandana). In these pictures LaChapelle sought to pay homage to rap’s roots in the “call and response” songs of slaves, while the sepia wash and texture represent LaChapelle’s homage to Walker Evans, a photographer best known for his work during the Great Depression.
“Amy Winehouse: Fallen friend on the walk of stars” (2007) from “Lost + Found (Part I)”
In the early 2000s LaChapelle began directing high-gloss, dream-like music videos for Jennifer Lopez, Florence + The Machine, Elton John, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. His video for Amy Winehouse’s soul-pop lament, “Tears Dry on Their Own”, filmed in 2007 when Winehouse was on the cusp of global stardom, was, by LaChapelle’s standards, subdued. It alternates between shots of Winehouse walking past the street murals and prostitutes of central Los Angeles, and the singer alone in a motel room. As the camera pans past a street evangelist, the video captures a darkly prescient moment: the man wears a placard emblazoned with the phrase, “The End is Near”. The resulting still inadvertently foreshadowed Winehouse’s death four years later, from alcohol poisoning.
“Pointeless” (2011) from “Lost + Found (Part I)”
Created in his Los Angeles studio, “Pointeless” is a typical LaChapelle tableau, bringing together surrealism, storytelling and glamour. Reminiscent of his fashion photography, this image reveals him as a skilled creator of highly stylised worlds. Four ballerinas in an icy dressing room are being whipped into shape by a woman who resembles a Victoria’s Secret model. But because this is LaChapelle, the dancers are all naturally sporting giant, doll-like heads.
“Aristocracy: Private Planes” (2014) from “Good News (Part II)”
When LaChapelle retreated to an eco-farm on Maui, it marked a turning point in his career. He embraced fine-art photography again and rejected materialism, in life as well as in his work. The “Aristocracy” series is a trio of images depicting private jets spiralling out of control amid roiling, colourful clouds. This gorgeous swipe at the jet-setting classes belies the hard work that went into making this scene: models of private jets were submerged in large tanks filled with water and Tempera paint. The scene was illuminated with gel lights.
“We Are Blessed” (2017) from “Good News (Part II)”
The final volume of LaChapelle’s anthology, “Good News”, rounds off a body of work marked by an enduring interest in religious iconography, from his 1980s black and white prints steeped in Renaissance religiosity to the mystical island paradise evoked in recent images shot in Hawaii. As in much of his recent fine-art work, the tableau of nude figures in “We Are Blessed” is a cosmic retelling of some forgotten biblical parable. The lush jungle setting frames undulating human forms, their eyes closed as though in a trance, one of whom holds a giant glowing eye gazing out at the viewer. As sparks crackle against the thick foliage overhead, we find ourselves looking at a vision of a strange new world.
Lost + Found, Part I and Good News, Part II by David LaChapelle (Taschen)