For photographer David LaChapelle, signs are pointing to the end of days – the Thwaites Glacier, or “doomsday glacier,” is barely hanging on; raging fire seasons have brutalized the Amazon; and critical changes in jet streams are causing extreme weather conditions worldwide, he said in a phone call.
In Maui, where LaChapelle retreated to in 2006 to go off the grid and recalibrate his life, drought has sapped the emerald-green island of its color in many areas, he added.
The acclaimed artist and director’s practice is deeply rooted in his Christian faith, and he recently became transfixed on a particular Bible passage describing the finality of the world – how men will be “lovers of self” during “terrible times in the last days.” Around him, LaChapelle saw that notion reflected in the ubiquitous selfie, with the camera turned inward out of conceit rather than introspection. He saw performance everywhere from people he passed by, and then a sense of sadness when the camera dropped.
“In my father’s generation, men weren’t ‘lovers of self,’” he said. “(There wasn’t) that self-obsession with our physicality that we see today.”
LaChapelle interpreted the scripture into a portrait last year – a nude male model sitting in front of a mirror, tears wet on his face, holding a phone with a distorted image of himself on the screen. Gently curled against the half-shell of the mirror, he evokes Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” but sorrowfully retreats into himself instead of joyously arriving on the scallop shell’s edge.
The photograph is one of the most recent works in a sweeping retrospective of the artist’s 40-year career of bold commercial images and meticulously staged allegorical tableaus, called “Make Believe,” at Fotografiska in New York. It’s LaChapelle’s first solo museum exhibition in the city, and just blocks away from 303 Gallery, where he mounted his very first show in 1984, around the same time that he was working for Andy Warhol, photographing for Interview magazine.
“It’s a full-circle moment, and there are some pieces from that very first exhibition in this show that have actually held up,” he said. Those images, airy black-and-white portraits of friends in wigs that nod to Renaissance-era silhouettes, show the artist’s longtime predilection for pictures saturated with rich art historical references.
‘What does the soul look like?’
Fotografiska’s architecture, which evokes a church setting in its Renaissance Revival style, is a fitting backdrop for LaChapelle, who continually returns to religious themes in his work, from painterly images of winged men he made during the AIDS crisis, to his famed celebrity portraits: Kanye West donning Jesus’s crown of thorns or David Bowie as the Virgin Mary in “pietá” motif. In recent years, he’s reinterpreted classic biblical scenes in a vivid, ethereal color palette against the lush backdrop of Maui, creating effervescent halos for his figures using long exposures of rotating lights.
Despite his reputation for provocative celebrity portraits, LaChapelle doesn’t use religion subversively, but earnestly in his work. Losing many of his close friends and his boyfriend in his early 20s left a deep mark on his life, and he lived for 15 years not knowing his own HIV status, he explained at the show’s press preview. He made photographs to leave a legacy.
“What does the soul look like? Is there heaven? These questions that I was having at that time,” he said in a phone interview about his early works. “Where does the energy of my 21-year-old friend go once he dies?”
But he was also reconciling his faith with a dark cultural period where prominent Christian pastors were lambasting the gay community for their “sins” and blaming them for the epidemic that was mercilessly killing them.
“I didn’t listen to people who were twisting and perverting the word of God into something ugly,” LaChapelle said. “I understand why (gay people in the community) were so angry at Christianity. I get it, I get it,” he continued. “But I knew the truth – the truth is that it’s a loving God. And you see that being reflected throughout my almost 40-year journey.”
A sense of equilibrium
There has often been a push and pull to LaChapelle’s output, as he has made photographs that playfully examine the constructs of beauty and celebrity while contributing some of the most recognizable images to the pop culture canon, such as teenage Britney Spears on the phone and in bed with a teletubby, and nude Naomi Campbell drenching herself in milk, both taken in 1999.
But his editorial and commercial images are just the tip of the iceberg to his prolific personal work. “Make Believe” includes his eerie Edward Hopper-influenced abandoned gas stations, hyper-saturated still lifes based on Dutch “vanitas” paintings, and pared down Georgia O-Keeffe-inspired compositions of tropical florals rendered large. Though he’s always integrated the environment into his work, his reverence for the natural world has become a mainstay of recent images.
“I love the solitude of nature, the peace that it brings me – I feel closer to God,” he said. “And then at the same time, I love glamour and pop stars in that whole thing, too. And I think it’s possible to enjoy both, and to be inspired by both.”
LaChapelle has worked on that equilibrium in his personal life as well, leaving Los Angeles to live on a self-sustaining farm in eastern Maui. He told The Guardian in 2017, “I never wanted to shoot another pop star – I was tortured by them,” but he has opted to take on shoots selectively instead of abandoning that facet of his career completely. In recent years, he’s photographed celebrities including Dua Lipa, Lizzo and Kim Kardashian.
“I wanted balance in my life,” he said. “I can choose the jobs I want to take on and then the rest of the time…just nurture friendships and catch up for those missing years where I didn’t grow in other areas.”
“There was a time in my life I was a workaholic, and it is similar to being a drug addict because it is a bit stunting,” he said. “Yes, you have this amazing career, but you haven’t developed your relationship skills to where they should be. I’d be in a relationship, and in the middle of having an issue I’d be getting on a plane. I’m like, ‘Oh, it’ll work itself out.’ And that’s not how relationships work. If you want it to work, you have to work it out, and talk it through and be present and be there.”
A shift in the world
Amid climate change, war, mass illness and political strife, all of which LaChapelle believes amounts to an “existential crisis to our survival,” the photographer is dismayed by the state of art and culture – something he has often discussed. He believes the media we consume is too violent, and music and art are lacking a clear and focused direction.
“Art has always been a reflection of the time that we live in,” he said, pointing to the protest songs of the 1960s that were a “soundtrack” to a turbulent period of war and activism. “We don’t have a zeitgeist – where is the music? Where is the art?”
LaChapelle compares the afflictions of our era to an autoimmune infection like AIDS on a global scale, calling them “a breakdown of the immune system on the planet.”
“I think that’s why many people quit their jobs, I don’t think it was just Covid or getting a check,” he said. “I really think that people feel something is different in the world, and they don’t want to do a job that doesn’t mean anything.”
Already in 2006, however, LaChapelle was thinking of great disruptions of cataclysmic proportions. He made the enormous, Sistine Chapel-inspired composite image “Deluge” then, showing a horde of nude figures in distress as heavy waters threaten to wash them away in Las Vegas. But during the “Make Believe” press preview, the artist recounted how one gallery visitor years ago told him he believed that everyone’s outstretched arms were reaching to take things for themselves in the final moments of their lives. LaChapelle, a believer in community, intended the opposite.
“It’s humanity at its best,” he explained in front of the artwork. “When I made it, it was really about all the hands extending and helping each other, even though they know it’s over, that that may be washed away – the end is near. So it’s really this idea of people loving each other, even at the end of times.”
For him, he has also found solace in human connection even when the world feels grim and on a precipitous edge.
“I have a really good friend who is out here and we just laugh and swim when we’re together,” he said over the phone. “I do my work, and I go swimming every day – that brings me joy, the cleanliness of the water, the fresh air. These things that we always took for granted are really the true luxuries in life.”
As LaChapelle returned from a trip earlier this summer, he was greeted with the brown hue of Maui that he was unaccustomed to as the plane landed. But on the other side of the island, where there had been recent rainfall, he saw life renewed.
“I went to Hana, on the East side where I live, and it was all fresh,” he said. “Just three months of rain had everything brought back to life – there was a healing power.”
“Make Believe” is on view at Fotografiska New York now through January 9, 2023.