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David LaChapelle:
Celebrity Portraits as Social Commentary?

By 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 twenty-five times.

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
Photo 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.

"I 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 Manhattan studio.

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 his face.

Photo David LaChapelle: Pamela Anderson: My Chihuahua, Los Angeles (1998)

"When 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 Dadaists.

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.

The 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.

One must 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."

"Later 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."

History 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.

hotel lachapelle

Hotel LaChapelle

is available from Bullfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company through the Internet and local booksellers nationwide.

Ben Patrick Johnson is a journalist and novelist based in Los Angeles. His next book is about American Bible-belt missionaries in the former Belgian Congo.

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