What Would LaChapelle Do?

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 “I had sort of said everything I wanted to say about popular culture,” he explains.

“The King of Pop Art has left the building.”

That’s what could have been said two years ago when David LaChapelle flew from the mainland to a private sanctuary in Hawaii. He was at the height of his game, the top of his industry. He had completely redefined the pop photography genre over the course of his career, snapping shots of the era’s biggest names in some of the most provocative, edgy, in-your-face poses, using bright lollipop hues, and intricate out-of-this-world sets that many have tried to duplicate, but none have matched.

LaChapelle spent two decades recording pop culture, mirroring it back to itself before flipping the genre on its head and taking a shot from that angle. He was one of the most coveted editorial photographers, working constantly for the likes of Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. He couldn’t get enough, always with a camera in his hand, always working, working, working, wanting to take a shot of everyone, everyone, anyone who mattered. He wanted those shots to be the definition of the subject’s life, of their celebrity, to capture the glamour in a way that no other photo could, so that in decades, in centuries, someone studying this time period could look at that one photo and know who that person was.

And then, he stopped.

“I had sort of said everything I wanted to say about popular culture,” he explains. He didn’t know when he’d come back, or if. But then, during his time away, he saw something in that mirror he had used for everyone else. He saw himself. It was a fresh angle, and, looking at it, he knew who that person was…And he couldn’t stay away for long.

“I love my studio,” he explains from his workplace in L.A. The building is filled with a slew of people there for a shoot for a gallery exhibition; models and assistants and BlackBerry-wielding PR-types are scurrying through the set. There is an energy, an aura of greatness that surrounds LaChapelle, and the models in the building feel it. They are about to be photographed by David LaChapelle. It’s a great feeling.

Our cover photo shoot is scheduled for today, and the photographer is on track to show up and capture LaChapelle in his native environs: on a set. But he has another idea: “Why don’t I take the shot?”

Immediate response: YES.

So after the melee that is occurring in the space now, LaChapelle will turn the camera on himself. In a way, this goes against his affirmation that he is no longer interested in shooting the celebrity. Because the artworks he created while behind the camera have made him almost as much as a celebrity as the stars that he was commissioned to shoot. He is an icon in the photography world, in the art world, and in the real world.

You can’t escape his work. It’s everywhere. It is not confined to the walls of a gallery or the pages of a magazine. He directs commercials and music videos, creates ad campaigns for some of the world’s top brands. Remember that quasi-disturbing image of Christina Aguilera with her lips tied neatly shut with black string, tears cascading down her flawless cheeks, blue eyes upturned in pain? That was LaChapelle’s for a Declare Yourself campaign. He directed a five-minute commercial for H&M, titled Romeo & Juliet. He has done campaigns for Motorola, Sky Vodka, Bebe, Phillip Morris, and more. And although the shots cross categories and defy characterization, they have one common thread: They are instantly identifiable as being taken by David LaChapelle.

This style, this flair for a surreal-yet-somehow-totally-real photo has transcended into his recent works, the ones created with gallery exhibitions in mind. This is exemplified by the Jesus is My Homeboy series, which will open during Art Basel Miami Beach at Wolfgang Roth & Partners, Fine Art (201 NE 39th Street, 2nd Floor). The insightful series has a Jesus figure chillin’ at a Last Supper with a whole crew of new disciples, and acting as and mediator between police and a lady of the night. The shots seem like a snippet of a rolling scene, a frame of an ongoing movie, which is the effect LaChapelle was going for. “There is a narrative tale in the photographs,” he says. “They’re not formalist in approach, they’re much more about a story being told.”

The Homeboy series clearly tries to answer the moral question: What would Jesus do? “[The images] are based on what the second coming would look like and the idea of the sublime,” he explains. “I’ve always been intrigued by that: taking an idea that has been depicted so many times by Old Masters throughout the history of art. I wanted to do a scene in color photography in a modern and urban setting. I wanted to answer the questions: What would it look like? What would it be like? I wanted to keep the authenticity without having it become ironic.”

Rather than reserve himself for the wealthy and for the elite, LaChapelle feels that Jesus would speak with and for the people in the streets, for the less fortunate and the downtrodden. “We were thinking that maybe Jesus is My Homeboy would offend people,” explains Wolfgang Roth, the proprietor of the art gallery. “We chose it based on the controversy it might produce. I am really excited and looking forward to showcasing LaChapelle’s work.”

The artist explains that he has a long relationship with Roth, mainly from Roth’s European galleries. He has been an international art dealer since 1985, and he served on the board at the respected auction house Sotheby’s online auction division. He is also the founder of the only publicly traded investment fund for the art world, The Art Fund, so his selection of LaChapelle for the gallery’s Art Basel debut is a testament to his faith in the art. All of LaChapelle’s works will  be for sale during the exhibition.

LaChapelle’s Jesus is My Homeboy series, which will appear alongside sculptures by Arne Quinze, will be only the second exhibition in the studio. (The first, The Red Couch by Horst Wackerbarth, opened October 4.) It is fitting for LaChapelle to be one of the first; his career kicked off in the ’80s with the inaugural exhibition at New York gallery 303. He also met Andy Warhol around the same time, and was brazen enough to show the founder of pop art his portfolio; Warhol was impressed enough to get LaChapelle a gig at Interview magazine, where he learned that through editorial shoots, the whole world was his gallery.

He has come full circle, after a whirlwind two decades serving as the go-to photographer, in constant demand by top titles. But two years ago, after the publication of his third retrospective book that was an amalgamation of his unique shots over the years—a bound book of decadence—he realized, “I didn’t want to keep photographing fashion and celebrities….I really just walked away at the top of that editorial photography world, leaving the world that was not a place that I wanted to continue to be in. Although it was great when I was in my 20s and early 30s. But I wanted to do something different.”

So LaChapelle completely removed himself from the universe that he had defined for decades. He went to its antithesis: Hawaii, more specifically, a farm on the island of Maui. “I decided I had said everything I needed to say, so I moved to the farm.” The 25-acre property had been a small working farm and a nudist colony, and when LaChapelle learned it was up for sale, the privacy that it afforded—being the only private land in the middle of a state park—just proved to be too much of an allure for the man best known for being at the center of the scene. He turned the land into an organic farm dubbed Artisan Farmers. “It’s a place where people come to work as artists and farmers,” he explains, “and most of all learn about sustainability. People get re-inspired, work on the farm, and it is really relaxed….It changes the artists’ work, to be isolated in the jungle.” He invites artists and disadvantaged youths from around the globe to come and experience the farm and learn about both photography and sustainability. He also takes the opportunity to learn from them. “It’s an exchange of ideas,” he says. “They fuel my interests because I love to see what they are doing, reading, listening to. I look at their photos, their work, so it’s an exchange.”

The island proved to be a pleasant retreat for LaChapelle, but it wasn’t long before he was approached by a gallery to create a series of original art. From that isolated patch of land, returning to L.A. was like stepping back into a different world. The resulting series, Deluge, reflects that contrast. It is a modern-day retake on Michelangelo’s Deluge, Noah’s Flood in the Sistine Chapel. The series includes shots of a museum being filled up with water, a tragedy during which all the great artwork is destroyed. This is a reflection of the sheer excess that he feels pervades the art world. This was also reflected in his recent show, titled Insufficiency of all Things Attainable with a subtitle of Decadence. “I wanted to be very clear what the piece was about: excess and so much money, and so much conspicuous consumption. I don’t feel a person’s value is just their net worth.”

This ideal runs rampant through much of his recent work. Its origin can be traced back to Rize, the 2005 documentary about krumping, filmed in the streets of Los Angeles. He never had any interest in doing a documentary, but upon seeing these kids—downtrodden, less fortunate, people of the streets—who were making beautiful, dancing art, he couldn’t not do the documentary. “Rize was about some marginalized people who have no money, creating art from nothing. The true artist will find a way to create and the means to do it….The process [of creating Rize] and the end result were so full of hope,” he explains. “It had a hopeful and heroic message.” Against all odds, art will always find a way to flourish.

It was upon finishing that film, one of the best-reviewed of 2006, that LaChapelle’s whole attitude and outlook on life changed. He retreated to Hawaii and reevaluated his life, thinking about what was important.

What emerged was this new man whose artwork, rather than being the sticky, in-your-face, celebrity laden, plastic-like glitz that came out of the ’90s, offers intricate, detailed glimpses at our society as a whole, and slowly, it seems he is starting to like what he sees.

His next series will be entitled Paradise Regained. The set is under production in Hawaii, where LaChapelle feels so at home. “It is a continuation of the narrative that was in the Deluge series. It is the story of where the survivors of an old world went into the new world and were turned innocent, out there in the jungle of Hawaii.” It would appear as though art is once again reflecting real life—with some colorful distortion.

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