Conversation with David LaChapelle by Gianni Mercurio
GIANNI MERCURIO: You have drawn and painted since you was a child. But you soon decided to express yourself through the means of photography. At the beginning of the ‘eighties the art scene was mainly given over to painting with rare and important exceptions such as Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman. Perhaps we could run through your early career.
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I started off taking pictures and showing them in galleries. At the beginning I didn’t want to work for magazines as I wanted to exhibit in a gallery, and I did. My first show was at a gallery called 303, which I inaugurated, it was 1984. Then a few months later I had my second show there. You didn’t have to wait a whole year before you had another show. We were just playing, you know, wanting to make work, wanting to make art. At that time, I was only asking about $400 for a picture, and still no one was buying them. You couldn’t live off of that.
GM: And your first meeting with Warhol?
DLC: I had met Andy at a Psychedelic Furs concert at the Ritz, this nightclub in New York. He said, “Come by and show me your work.” At the same time, the people from Interview had come to see the show at 303. Mark Ballet who was the art director and Paige Powell, and Wilfredo Rosado and I went there to Interview.
GM: Were you excited by the idea of being able to work with Andy or did you just consider it a passing moment in your life?
DLC: Interview was THE magazine: It was the only place I was interested in. It was the zeitgeist. The place you wanted to be seen was Interview. If you wanted to know what was going on in the world – the art world and pop-culture - you looked at Interview magazine. It was IT. To work for THAT magazine was great. So suddenly I didn’t need galleries: I wasn’t making money to live on selling at galleries anyway, It felt like it was broader. Then I got this idea in my head that magazines were like a gallery and if you got your magazine page ripped out and someone stuck it on their refrigerator, then that was a museum – someone’s private museum. I started working for everyone I could and taking as many pictures as I could, working around the clock. I was working in this very bombastic style. I didn’t really know about style. I didn’t think about it: I did what I was interested in, what I was attracted to, what I was drawn to. I was drawn to color, and I was drawn to humor, and I was drawn to sexuality and spontaneity. It was all really intuitive. I never really thought, “Well this is the style…”.
GM: Your work is very wide-ranging. Do you think there is a LaChapelle style?
DLC: You just do what you love, and then a style happens later on. People put it together and decide it’s yours. But some days you wake up and you’re happy and some days you wake up and you’re sad, some days you wake up and you’re feeling angry about things… if you can translate that through your work, and express those feelings, that’s okay as an artist. I didn’t see any difference between being a photographer or being an artist. I didn’t make those boundaries. If someone wants to think it’s art, that’s great, but I’ll let history decide. The pictures ultimately were taken for magazines. They were taken in order to draw your attention – to make you stop, as you’re flipping through hundreds of images, BAM! I would imagine a blank page and I could do anything I wanted on that page. That would inspire me, that’s how I got my ideas. I could put anything I want on it. What do I want to put there right now? I would put my obsessions on there, things that I was thinking about – things that were in my mind. If I could get those out and onto that page, then it would be a release and, ultimately, a success, because other people felt akin to this idea too so it was relating. It started from that and suddenly the goal was to photograph as many people as I could to make up the world of popular culture and the world that we lived in. To record it – and to see how far I could push people and push situations.
GM: At a certain point you shifted from black and white photography to color.
DLC: When I look back I can see when I switched to color; it really was exactly the time that I realized that I did not have HIV… It was almost as if a weight was lifted off of me, because I had seen my first boyfriend die of AIDS when I was 19 years old and he was 24. So for many years I thought that I was going to die the same way. Everything was in black and white because there was, for me at the time, no access to color and I felt very seriously about things at that time. My early pictures from then are black and white; they’re moody and dark, and I did this for six years. I spent many years printing in dark rooms in New York City and creating this work. I thought I had a limited time here. I was working really hard, but with this weight on my shoulders thinking, every time I got sick, or every time I coughed or I got a bruise, I thought, “Okay that’s it”. When I discovered that I was negative it was around the time that I started doing color work and I started bursting with colors. Looking back I can see it very clearly. At the time I didn’t realize that that’s what was happening or that it was my reaction; but when I look back at the timeline, I can see really clearly that I started using color about exactly the same time that I found out that I was going to be around longer. I also feel that, in the beginning, my goal in my pictures was to provide a form of escapism from the heaviness of the time that I was going through and the heaviness of the world in general. I wanted it to provide an escape route, I wanted to make pictures that were fantastic and took you into another world, one that was brighter. I started off with this idea.
GM: And then?
DLC: You change. I’m definitely not the same person I was then. You grow and you learn and you change and hopefully you get better at what you do, and hopefully you evolve as a human being. Hopefully that’s what I’ve been doing. My goals are different today from what they were when I first started photography. They keep changing. I think someone said it better when they said, “You know, I’m a work in progress”: I think we’re all works in progress. Right now I feel sort of at the beginning of my career, the beginning of a whole new way of working, of seeing and living. In my work, there’s no definitive line between life and work, it’s all the same. My life kind of becomes work and you enjoy it and love it, and you work with the people you live with, and love, so it’s just a whole unit. It’s not compartmentalized into job or work and then life – it’s all one. I would say I feel again like I’m beginning something brand new now, a whole new start of something.
GM: You candidly show your contacts with Pop culture. After Surrealism, Pop is the longest living trend in the history of art. How do you think Pop had changed over the past forty years? Pop today influences the great majority of artists…
DLC: For me Pop has always meant being accessible, something that touches people, deals with interesting and important things for people. Everything has changed; ideas have changed over time and Pop has become less a movement and more an art form: just as there’s music, painting or visual arts, there’s also Pop Art. It’s an art that reaches people and the methods used to reach people have changed over the years. In the ‘eighties with Keith Haring there was a change in the atmosphere, something really new: I think that nowadays Pop means something different from what it originally meant. It’s become such an important term that it really is everything in itself. It’s no longer a movement but a category of art.
GM: In your work we find mixed together dreamlike Surrealistic elements and amazing scenes of everyday life. You create a kind of Magritte-like hyperrealism in which absurdity is a concrete aspect of contemporary life, a kind of unreality show…
DLC: Many of the surrealists were anarchists. Magritte, I think, was totally a punk-rock kind of anarchist artist who was really asking questions pertaining to a lot within the art world – posing questions of what is art? – really on the verge of conceptual art. “Is this art?” – those ideas. I’m hungry for art in general. I’ve studied and loved art. I don’t know if you call it studying, but since I was a child I’ve aspired to be an artist by whatever means possible: I wasn’t going to be any kind of businessman. It also gave me license not finish school, to not pay attention in classes, in mathematics, because I knew I was going to be an artist from a really young age. So I knew I was never going to need all the stuff they were teaching me in school. I loved art, so I read and studied everything I could. Even from the beginning I’ve always loved Michelangelo’s work, and have always been going back to it. I know that sounds strange because I was the one who was shooting Lil’ Kim and Pamela Andersen and Paris Hilton, it’s like: “Where does that come from?” I was just recording the world I lived in and a lot of those jobs were, just that: jobs, and I did it the way that I could. I’ve said everything I wanted to say in popular culture and magazines, and now I only want to make work for galleries, like when I started back in 1984 at the 303 Gallery. I wanted to make work only for galleries and now I’m starting that again. We’re going to see whether or not that’s going to work, whether people get it or not. For me, it’s the only thing I can do now. I’m no longer in love with the ideas that I was in love with five or ten years ago. From 1995 until 2005 my aim was to photograph every single person that I could in the world, period. I wanted to record it all. It started off that I wanted to take THE photograph of every person that would define their life. Then later on, at the millennium, around 1999/2000, my aim was to photograph that decade and the obsessions of that culture, of our culture, and of our time – to get it on film. Even though they were overblown in their fantasies, they were what was happening in the world
GM: You work a lot on commission, something that modern artists have never been much involved with. But you also make independent works as the result of your personal needs.
DLC: I called my book Artists & Prostitutes, because we’ve all been a little bit of both. At least I have, in working for people and trying to get my ideas manifested; but every situation is different. I photograph each person in a different way. You get assignments and then you assign yourself, but they’re all commitments in some way. It’s much harder to work for yourself, by yourself, than to create work for a gallery, because there are no limits and you can do anything you want. It’s always easier when you have a parameter, when you have a limit. You can work within the limit and push it and walk the line, but when you’re given absolutely no limits, it’s harder. You must really think. It’s more challenging.
GM: What’s is the creative process at the heart of your work? I mean, is you way of working analytical and based on the progressive structure of a project, or do you go ahead intuitively?
DLC: Because of the nature of my work and the amount of pictures that I took in the ten year period between 1995 and 2005, the velocity of constructing the shoots and shooting – I was working pretty much 24/7 – and always building another set, there wasn’t a lot of time to plan a strategy. There was no ulterior motive. There was no time to think. It was more of an intuitive, constantly moving machine. We were working, working, shooting, shooting, and shooting. So there was no time to reflect on what we were doing or the meaning of it or manipulating somebody’s image. It was really about trying to take those pictures that sum up the person, that if you looked at that person’s picture, you could tell who they were from the picture, if you didn’t already know who they were. My idea was that if I took a picture of somebody and years later, or whenever, they would die and if someone wanted to know who this person was, they could take one of these pictures and it would tell who the person was. It was a spontaneous and intuitive rather than a methodical and cerebral way to shoot. We were high velocity – high output. Now you can look at it and see what it means, but I think when you work intuitively that way, in the end you can look back and see the meaning with a little more clarity.
GM: Your latest work, Deluge, was inspired by the Sistine Chapel. Why this reference to classical art? Have contemporary narrative and figuration become arid?
DLC: I’ve always been interested in the ideas of the sublime. I’ve always been interested in the idea of what is the sublime moment. Mostly the sublime moment is found in nature. Very rarely does a piece of art make you feel the presence of God. Very rarely does that happen, that profound impact of “Oh my God there has to be something other than this world.” One of those times that happens for me is when I see the Sistine Chapel. It’s very hard today because of the crowds and the noise in the Sistine Chapel. It’s so loud and crazy, but if you can transcend that, and see the work, it is an awe-inspiring moment. It’s very difficult to achieve the sublime in art. Sometimes those moments happen. When those portals into the idea of eternity open at the death of a loved one, the diagnosis of cancer, the birth of a child, in the face of calamity people ask, “Is there a God?” These kinds of questions are raised, this chance for enlightenment. Sometimes it can happen through a symphony and sometimes it can happen through seeing a great work of art with your own eyes. I was really attracted to Michelangelo since I was a child. If you talk about Pop, he’s the ultimate Pop artist. He’s the one artist who’s recognized throughout the world. You can show the picture of the hand, the creation of Adam, and everyone knows the name of the artist. Which is pretty close to the definition of Pop – being popular: Everyone knows Michelangelo. The work somehow is broad enough, it really reaches out to every intellect and to childhood, whether you’re a member, a part of the art world or not. It cuts through the idea of an art world and the “world world.” It really cuts through that: there’s no boundary when you’re looking at the work of Michelangelo, you’re faced with the world. Its not the art world, it’s “the world”, it’s humanity. The ideas of eternity come into play, and the ideas of enlightenment and the idea of “is there a God?” Because how could something so beautiful be created? I think that was Michelangelo’s idea. The beauty of man was proof that there was a God. I think this is what he was trying to communicate. It seems like one of the questions that he was asking, or answering, was that there must be a God in order to create something as beautiful. There’s beautiful which is Raphael, and there’s sublime, which is Michelangelo – it takes your breath away.
GM: Museum. Let’s talk about these photos. Once again what predominates is the destructive power of a force greater than us. The water invades the museum, makes it useless, except that the masterpieces are saved, though they are left to look after themselves. Does this water have some purifying power? Does it refer to the art system and to the fact that that system often considers art as just another kind of merchandise?
DLC: Today’s art market is a frenzy of collectors; new money has been dropped into the art market over the last five years, and records are being broken at every auction – in terms of prices. The commodification of art and artists has never been at such a level. The temptation for artists to be bought and to make their work for that market has never been greater. The idea for those pictures in Museum was more of the idea of ownership. We are caretakers of a piece of artwork if we own it. We tell ourselves we own it but really we are only caretakers for a period of time. At the end, when the flood comes and the Deluge, the art works are what remain. Who owned it is completely forgotten. Part of those pictures was just about the materialistic idea of ownership of art and the frenzy of the art world. Everything is in a state of transience, of movement. So Museum is to show the precious having become priceless. When something becomes priceless, like priceless works of art, the idea is that it’s priceless or valueless. The pictures in the flooded museum – it’s one and the same. It is both priceless and it is of no value. During the flood, and during a calamity, you can grab your painting, but it’s not going to be a raft – it’s not going to keep you afloat. The idea of people’s names living on through their artwork, or through their collections of artworks, is a myth we tell ourselves to comfort ourselves in the face of death.
GM: And the flood in your Cathedral? Contemporary artists seem continually to want to deal with spirituality and even with religion, even if in a heretical way: out of fear, the need for strong reference points, a mark of belonging…
DLC: I think, in general, people are looking for enlightenment. I think that art is the reflection of life. If people are looking for enlightenment in life and for having answers to questions, then it’s going to happen simultaneously in art as well. I think that we live in the age of such incredible communication, through 24-hour news channels and seeing the atrocities of the world, especially the world now with so many more people in it. We’re seeing much more of the dark side of human nature; it makes you question our existence. Why are we here? What’s the purpose? Those are all existential questions, the same questions that every artist is going to be asking as well. I don’t think post-modernism answered or even posed any questions of that nature. I think the metaphysical quest is the quest for enlightenment. People are looking for answers to why the world is the way it is. When you come very close to the face of suffering, to nihilism and darkness, it makes you really ask the question of purpose: why are we here? It really brings you to the whole existential idea of what is the meaning of life. I think that if there are going to be any answers to that question, they’re going to be through art and through an artist who can deliver or shine some sort of light, which would mean enlightenment. We’ve been through such an age of confusion and such a time of turmoil and a real shaking of the world right now. We’ve seen it: you can’t avoid it; it’s going to have to be. The pendulum is going to have to swing in another way. We’re going to have to see light being shone on this idea of purpose, of the purpose of life. Enlightenment is going to come, and if it’s not going to come from the arts then I don’t know where it’s going to come from. It’s not going to come from CNN. It’s going to come through an artist