Ben Patrick Johnson
NEW YORK, 3 March 2000 - By its very
nature, the work of American photographer David LaChapelle invites
controversy. One observer at New York magazine called LaChapelle
"the Fellini of photography," while another of the same
periodical's writers suggested, "David LaChapelle should have his
artistic license suspended."
If asked to describe his
efforts, one might begin by calling them manic. But, in terms of art,
such a label is ambiguous. Mania can be the ferment of genius left to
languish by a public that cannot or will not understand an artist's
intentions. Or it can be the product of an individual, with little to
say, who takes an audience's passing attention to his protestations as a
testament to the viability of his message and its delivery. Think of the
garrulous child who, having earned faint praise from parents for some
clumsy living room theatrics, insists on repeating his performance
LaChapelle's prominence is primarily as an
advertising and celebrity portrait photographer. As such, his oeuvre is
accessible and sampling it is as easy as flipping through recent
editions of French Vogue and the American magazines Rolling
Stone, Interview and Detour. If one subscribes to the theory that
advertising is among the truest barometers of a society's collective
psyche at any given time, LaChapelle's relevance may be gauged by his
garish spreads for Camel cigarettes and the signature, surrealistic
scenes he dreamed up for Diesel jeans ads. As with his other work,
there's invariably too much color, too much going on, and whatever an
audience of aesthetes might think, that's how LaChapelle likes things.
David LaChapelle: My House, New York (1997)
As he told the New
York Times in 1994, looking back on the first few years of his
career, "I remembered that Truman Capote quote, 'Good taste is the
death of art,' and I embraced it."
He has just released a
new collection of photographs titled Hotel LaChapelle. The
hot-pink oversized volume is a follow-up to 1996's LaChapelle Land
(Simon and Schuster/Callaway Editions), which earned a slot on the Los
Angeles Times bestseller list.
The book is populated with
photographs of the famous and not-so-famous posed in half-destroyed
generic office cubicles, suburban residential streets, ghoulish plastic
surgery clinics, sweeping swaths of Midwest cornfield, and the
glittering, dizzying Las Vegas strip. These settings seem a fitting
canvas for the 36-year-old artist, who grew up in Connecticut and North
Carolina. But they are treated with more scorn than reverence.
view this book as a collection of people that make up the time we live
in. It's really about America today," LaChapelle says,
half-hopefully, half-sarcastically, in a recent conversation at his
One of the more memorable pictures in the
collection is a scene centered around American schlock-pop icon Pamela
Anderson, who LaChapelle recently described as "an exhibitionist"
in The Advocate. In the shot, Anderson lies on pavement in the
headlights of a wrecked Mercedes-Benz, head shiny-bald, while a handsome
male companion kneels nearby holding a blond wig, a look of horror on
David LaChapelle: Pamela Anderson: My Chihuahua, Los Angeles (1998)
I was working on that one," LaChapelle says, "it occurred to
me that Pam's life was like a car crash. You can't take your eyes off
it." In this post-Di
era, the image assumes an added creepiness LaChapelle may or may
not have intended when deciding to include it in his book. At times, his
love of juxtaposition and absurdity veer him off his path, landing him
squarely in a mud patch hosed down early in the previous century by the
An image titled Truffle Hunt depicts a blond,
silent film era starlet, dressed as a vampy gladiator, riding a giant,
caricature of a pig through a misty forest of winter birch trees. Her
hair is wild and undone. Her eye makeup is black and racoon-like. Her
hand holds a cat o' nine tails, while her face wears a generic, glassy
look of surprise typical of LaChapelle's subjects.
artist's images are paradoxes. They are full of movement, using frantic
action to depict the pathology of the contemporary soul. But they share
little with the type of raw photojournalism that such a stratagem might
suggest. Instead, LaChapelle's works are meticulously posed cartoons;
their human subjects seem to be howling in anguish, lost in arm-waving
throes of ecstasy, bleeding, but are so bloodless, so ponderously
arranged, that they might as well be wax dummies.
acknowledge the singularity and recognizability of LaChapelle's visual
style. If any debt is owed, it is one of inspiration. Thirty years
before LaChapelle began examining advertising as art and dissecting the
phenomenon of celebrity, the same ground was tread by pop-art visionary
Andy Warhol. I remind LaChapelle of an anecdote he once related to the
New York Times about his first encounter with Warhol, in which
the then-18-year-old novice presented his idol with one of his first
pictures and had it languidly decreed, "great."
on, I learned that he could look at a cookie and say, 'Great',"
LaChapelle told the Times.
"The thing you have to
understand about Andy Warhol is that he didn't get into analyzing
[stardom]. He had a very straightforward attraction to the glamorous
side of celebrity. I think that's why he started Interview. And
I totally understand it. The escapism is important in our lives."
may remember David LaChapelle as a frustrated social critic with a
commentary worthy of attention. But in the present tense, he may remind
audiences a little too much of that loud child in the living room, and
many will find his work something only a mother could applaud.