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Interview with Artist, Photographer, Filmmaker, and Director David LaChapelle

Aired September 7, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET



ANJALI RAO, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He's had Courtney Love pose as Mary Magdalene and pictured the late Michael Jackson as a martyr. Visions that have helped David LaChapelle catapult from struggling artist to world famous photographer.

He's also injected his signature style into music videos, directing them for artists such as Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera.

Although his flirtatious explorations of pop culture, fashion, and religion haven't pleased everyone. Critics slammed his depiction of Kanye West as a black Jesus and he stirred up controversy with his Lolita-like take on a young Britney Spears. That didn't stop this protege of Andy Warhol shying away from a challenge.

In 2002, LaChapelle swapped photographs for videos and financed his own documentary about the dance craze, "krumping" in South-Central Los Angeles.

This week on "Talk Asia", we catch up with David LaChapelle at his latest exhibition in Hong Kong and find out why he ditched the glitz and glamour of fashion photography to return to his artistic roots.


RAO: Now, this is your latest exhibition showing in Hong Kong and it's the first time that you have shown anything here. It's also the first time that "The Raft" and also "The Bruce Lee Collection" have been shown globally. What was the motivation behind bringing them to an international audience now?

DAVID LACHAPELLE, PHOTOGRAPHER AND DIRECTOR: Well, these pictures - these Bruce Lee images in particular - were made specifically for China. After coming here over a year ago into Beijing, I just started reading the Tao and Confucianism and Buddhism and trying to get a handle on the philosophies that made up this really rich ancient culture.

RAO: It's a little bit different to what we know you best for, which is these, you know, crazy full-on, you know, hyper-stylized sex-meets- celebrity portrait shots. Where does your style come from? Because you look at something of yours and it just screams David LaChapelle.

LACHAPELLE: Well, I never really thought about style, you know? It was always more about what I wanted to say and I was attracted to color and style - something that really just happened. The concept of things were what interested me most. A story or the narrative behind an image interested me more than just how things looked or the form of things. I just never wanted to get stuck within a sort of idea of what my work should look like, because that can be limiting.

RAO: You're a big fan of nudity in your pictures.

LACHAPELLE: The figure is important to me. It represents many, many things. At the present time, for me, it's sort of this idea of rescuing the figure from meaning one thing in photography. Photography, I feel like, we're in this new sort of dark ages. In the Dark Ages, the nude body was looked at as something sinful.

RAO: Yes.

LACHAPELLE: Today we look at it as just something to be bought and sold. Some sort of product or some sort of means of sexual gratification. And I wanted to rescue, in my own small way, as a photographer, as an artist, to rescue the figure so that it again will mean something more of what it did in the renaissance. The idea of spiritual clothing. You know, that this is more than just this product you've commodified. And, after years of working in fashion and celebrity was kind of the paradox, you know, to be having these thoughts and these ideas while working in the realm of publications which really sold that notion.

RAO: You can certainly see that with, you know, things like the photos that you've done of Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton.

LACHAPELLE: Yes. These are the people that made up our world. These were what America was about for those 18 years that I was photographing. My goal was to really photograph everything like a tourist - what America was about. And its choices. And not judgment - not with judgment, but with just questioning of all this consumption and all this, like, celebrity worship. And you can see very clearly in some of the pictures how they really are just - you know, people just worshiping at the altar of celebrity.

RAO: You've said that we live in an unshockable world. Yet, people have frequently been taken aback by the images that you depict. What have you made of the public reaction to your work?

LACHAPELLE: I'm shocked that people are shocked. Honestly, I have never, ever set out to take a picture that shocked anyone. Definitely give them the unexpected. I wanted to stop people in the magazine. That was my goal - to get them to stop for a minute while they're flipping through and hopefully tear it out. But, if not, just look at it long enough to take it in.

RAO: There is this sort of coming together of sexuality and religion that's really your trademark, I think, these days. And, you know, classic case in point was when you did "Pieta" with Courtney Love. And she's cradling this guy who's a combination of Christ and Kurt Cobain. Tell me about doing that shoot. It must have been really emotional for her, for a start.

LACHAPELLE: Yes, it was. I mean, it was emotional for all of us. And the "Pieta", for me, is a symbol of ultimate loss. There's nothing that symbolizes loss or grief more than a mother losing a child. And so, we died my friend's hair blond, who was to be held by Courtney. And when he walked out on to the set - I'll never forget it - it's actually on the website, you can watch the filming of it. Because Courtney thought we were shooting the Nativity. She has the Pieta and the Nativity mixed up in her head. You know, she's a very smart girl, I mean, but she just got it mixed up. She thought we were shooting -

RAO: One is Christ's birth and the other's his death.

LACHAPELLE: I know, exactly, but, I mean, it just - if you go to my website, you can see the whole conversation. Someone's filming the - they filmed the whole shoot. But anyway, she thought she was holding a baby and she's holding this grown man.

RAO: Who looks like her dead husband.

LACHAPELLE: Who was blond and when he came out - yes.


COURTNEY LOVE, SINGER, SONGWRITER: I'm fine. I am fine. I'm just getting, you know, mixed messages to people and whole different thing. And then, you know.

LACHAPELLE (voice over): And I said, Courtney, you don't have to do this if you feel - I mean, we all felt it as soon as he walked out and I saw the resemblance, because we just bleached Walker's hair blond and glued this, you know, beard on to him - this blond beard. And I said, "You don't have to do this", you know, we can stop. And she said, "No, that's OK".


LACHAPELLE: So that's the story behind that picture. And she went ahead and did it. And it was emotional. I mean, that photograph. And I admire her for doing it. But it wasn't done with any sense of exploitation or sort of trying to make some sort of spectacle of it. It was really done with the purest intentions.


RAO: Coming up, David LaChapelle talks about the pop art pioneer who would jump-start his career.





LACHAPELLE: I purposely pushed the colors in these extra hard and kind of left a little grain, because I wanted them to resemble the movie posters of the 1970s.

RAO: Sure.

LACHAPELLE: These are all studies that I made, basically sketches. We're just playing around with photographs and cutting them up and really just never really meant for show, but the gallery wanted to exhibit it, because it is part of, I guess, the process, if you will. I spent 12 years working in dark rooms and now it's working with collages and sketches and doing these little things, so part of these little collages wind up being utilized in the final pieces.

This is chapter two. The first was "The Deluge" and then they wind up on the shores of paradise or enlightenment. And we shot those in Hawaii. And I'm beginning those now. This isn't really just about a tsunami or a particular storm or disaster. It's not apocalyptic in that sense. For me, it's about the struggles that we all go through in our lives.

RAO: Religion obviously plays a big part in your work. To what extent, though, does it, in your life? I know that you were brought up in a strict Catholic household.

LACHAPELLE: Well, it wasn't really strict.

RAO: Your dad was strict.

LACHAPELLE: My dad, you know - I was the third kid to come along, so I think I got away with murder compared to my brother and sister. It was a very open, really loving childhood and having grown up with, you know, my mom, who was - had an incredible sense of humor and incredible naturalness, we would, you know, swim together naked as a family. Even though, I mean, my father's very Catholic. His brother is a priest. There was a sense of humor about things and I just took that for granted in the sense.

Religion's become such a sort of an off-word. You know, it's sort of a very off-putting word. Especially in the world of art. Although, I study all the different religions and right now I'm really into Taoism and I believe that the main religions of the world are rivers that lead to the same ocean.

RAO: From what you've described of your childhood - just that little snapshot before - it sounds idyllic. Yet, you managed to take yourself off to New York at, what, 15?


RAO: Why?

LACHAPELLE: Well, at home it was great, but I was different, you know, from the other kids. Sort of the age-old story, we've heard it a million times, of being bullied at school. And it was either, you know, kill myself or move to New York, really. And that was it.


LACHAPELLE: I had found my home. New York City. Yes. Started going to Studio 54 when I was 14 and then to the downtown clubs. And at 15 I just left school altogether.

RAO: Was Studio 54 as crazy as they make out?

LACHAPELLE: It was magical. I mean, it really - I wasn't into the - you know, I was very young. I didn't do drugs or drink. I would dance and the music was incredible and the lights and everyone looked so beautiful. It was never crowded, you know. It was never like the clubs say -

RAO: Yes.

LACHAPELLE: With people all smashed up together. Everyone had room to dance and, you know, it was just the most exciting thing I'd ever seen.

RAO: Obviously Andy Warhol saw something in you that he decided to nurture. He gave you your first job at "Interview" magazine. Tell about how instrumental he was in - really, in getting you where you are today and what he meant to you.

LACHAPELLE: At 18, although I didn't have a diploma, I had a portfolio of photographs. I had been going to Andy and showing him the pictures. Because I finally had something to talk to him. I said, "Hey, I have some photographs, can I come by and show you?" And Andrew goes like, "Oh, they're great, they're great". And I was like, "Andy said my pics were great". I would be really excited.

No, he liked the photos, or he said he did. And, when I had my second show in New York, they came, the staff of "Interview", and they asked me if I would work for the magazine. And that led to working from '84 to '87. And then doing the last portrait of Andy before he died.

I put two bibles beside his head and framed it in this very formal kind of way, because I was one of the few people who knew that he went to church every Sunday when he was in New York. I didn't know that would turn out to be the last portrait. And yet, in that working for him, opened up the world of magazines to me. And I couldn't make a living off the galleries. I put my heart and soul into those pictures, but they weren't selling. And I had to survive and that became a really great opportunity.

RAO: Yes, you mentioned that you had to do certain things to survive as you're working your way up to be a photographer. I understand that you also had to work for a time as an escort, which, you know, to me sounds like a terribly sad thing to have to resort to.

LACHAPELLE: You know, I was 18 years old. I was pretty street smart, having been on my own since I was 15. I was 17, 18 years old. And the movie "American Gigolo" had just come out with Richard Gere. And it seemed kind of glamorous, but - and I couldn't really hold down a job. Photography was really, really expensive.

And, yes, there was a time where it was - I guess you could look at it as sad. I know that the world's different today and I certainly wouldn't want to give the impression that it was something cool to do or that I would recommend it, because I don't. And the world is such a different place now, with things done over the internet and, God knows, it's much more dangerous. You don't know, really, who you could meet.

There was this bar that you could go to in New York City and talk to gentlemen. I always had a good sense and I would talk to them and, thank God, I was never really wrong about what I was getting into. And there was a certain respect. I mean, I got a dinner out of it and sort of have a conversation. But I would talk to these people and see them face to face before going anywhere with them. And it was a really, you know, easy way to make $150, it seemed at the time. You know, though I did it for a short time, it's not something, you know, I'm proud of or really not something I would recommend for anyone to do today. It was a different world.


LACHAPELLE: Working with her was always very tense and not pleasant. Some people were very easy and fun, but, on the other extreme, I would have to say she's one of the hardest people to work with.





RAO: Let's talk about "Rize", because that was your first full-length movie. And, I think when people knew that you were going to do a movie, they would just have assumed that you would call your fantastic celebrity rolodex into play. But you didn't. You went down to South Central LA to document life down there. Particularly in light of a dance craze that was happening at the time. How come you decided to do that?

LACHAPELLE: Well, it was an art movement. I looked at it more like, you know, that art will come out of even the most oppressive situations. That true art will still find a way to grow between the cracks in the sidewalk. And these are schools and school districts in Los Angeles is one of the poorest in the nation, in America. And they don't have art classes. They don't have African history, they don't have dance. And these kids had developed this art form. They really had this cultural imprint of this movement that they were expressing themselves. Their anger was getting - instead of joining a gang - the choices they were making were heroic. And I looked at them like I'd look at any other star and I treated them as such.

RAO: And they weren't suspicious of you?

LACHAPELLE: No, no. They weren't. They didn't know who I was or anything. They didn't know that I had a name in photography or anything like that. And it wasn't until a few months of filming that they, like, "Hey, the other day I saw you on the red carpet at the MTV awards with Pamela Anderson. What are you doing? Why are you - ". And that even gave them - once they found out, they were like, even happier that someone who was working in that world of, you know, popular culture was interested in them.

RAO: Aside from your still portraits, you then moved into commercials and also music videos. And there's one story that I love and I hope you'll relate to us. In 2005, you were down to do "Hung Up" by Madonna. But you haven't spoken since. What happened?

LACHAPELLE: I always wanted to do a Madonna video. Madonna had a history of great videos and working with great directors. And I liked doing music videos a lot. And it was the first single off the album, which is, you know, a prestigious thing to do. When I met with her, it was so - I felt well, she's really changed and it wasn't going to be this tension that there had been on the still shoots. Because working with her was always very tense, very tense. Not pleasant at all.

RAO: Why? What's she like?

LACHAPELLE: I don't know, it was just very tense. Some people are very easy and fun and you have fun with them, but on the other, she might have to say she's one of the hardest people to work with in terms of just making everyone very on edge and uneasy. You know, it was really unpleasant experience doing stills with her.

So, when we were slated to do the video, I met with her and she was very funny and charming. And I thought, wow, she's really changed. And then I was hired to do to the video and as soon as that happened, she was on the phone. Suddenly just was yelling at me and everything I said was - she would yell something at me. And I didn't understand why she was yelling at me. It was just this conversation was just going on and on. And I never really said no to the job. I definitely was a workaholic, I have to say.

So I was kind of in this, like, workaholic state where I was - 11 months straight, you know. I financed the film "Rize" myself. It cost almost a million dollars. So I was having this phone call with her and she was screaming at me and I finally just got really quiet and didn't say anything and she is just talking, talking. And then said, "David? David? Are you there?"


RAO: Faux English accent.

LACHAPELLE: And I said, "Yes, I'm still here". And she said, "Hold on". And I looked down and my hand was shaking. And I hung up the phone and I said - I thought to myself, you know, I just did this film in South Central Lost Angeles, one of the most dangerous, you know, marginalized, impoverished neighborhoods in the United States. And I never was shaking. And I'm shaking - this woman's making me shake as I'm talking to her. And my music video agent was sitting next to me and she was just like - she was like Mcaulay Culkin, you know in -

RAO: Yes.

LACHAPELLE: "You just hung up on Madonna". And I was like, "Yes, I did". You know? And from that moment on - and it was a real turning point - I have to really thank Madonna for that. So I don't - this isn't a negative thing or something that I'm rehashing. But, since you asked, it really was a turning point. Because once I said no, it really was the first time I said no to -

RAO: You hung up on "Hung Up".

LACHAPELLE: I hung up on -- And then it was easy to say no. And that really led - just a few short months later, I was in Maui with my phone turned off.


LACHAPELLE (voice over): When I was a kid, growing up in New York in the East Village and first starting photography, I think I had just this dream. I guess my big goal - I used to pray to have a cabin in the woods. You know, being able to afford really good, you know, vegetarian food or having a garden. And being able to live off of what I made as an artist. And that was really three things I wanted in life more than anything.


RAO: When you did get back to photography after your retreat in Hawaii, you came back with things like "The Rape of Africa". How much work goes into these opulent pieces that you do?

LACHAPELLE: A lot of work goes into them because I have a lot more time now to think. I can spend a lot more time making these pictures say what I want them to say. And using the vocabulary I learned working for magazines and music videos and all the rest. I can employ those ideas or techniques of communicating.

RAO: So, you live this quiet life, now, in Maui. And you don't really say much, do the whole, you know, celebrity shenanigans thing anymore. But do you feel like a different David LaChapelle now than you were back then?

LACHAPELLE: I kind of feel more back to where I was when I was starting out, except with a lot more life experience. But, I think more of it's coming home to myself in a sense. I think that, you know, that art can change things. I think that, through art, we can gain enlightenment. Through art we can learn about ourselves and our culture and the time we live in. And that's always been the role of contemporary art. And, so, I think that - I aspire to those ideals.

RAO: David, thank you so much indeed for spending time with us today.

LACHAPELLE: You're welcome.

RAO: It was great.

LACHAPELLE: Yes. No, thank you for your insightful and well- researched questions.