If you are paging through Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, or Interview and are struck by a photograph that jumps off the page with electrifying colors, humor, and dynamic subjects, chances are the photographer is David LaChapelle--or someone consciously copying him. LaChapelle is arguably one of the most influential photographers working today; he has been recognized as Best New Photographer of the Year by French Photo and American Photo. Last year, VH-I bestowed upon him their coveted "Photographer of the Year" award
In the early 80’s, LaChapelle worked as a bus boy in New York's over-the-top celebrity hangout, Studio 54, where he witnessed first hand the devotion celebrities elicited. His photographic career began at Interview magazine under the tutelage of the magazine's founder, Andy Warhol. There, LaChapelle experienced total immersion in the life of glamour, becoming one of Interview's premier photographers.
LaChapelle shot mostly in black and white in the beginning, but he once told me he couldn’t take the posed black-and-white fashion aesthetic seriously anymore. His signature photography has become synonymous with wildly beautiful colorful sets, unexpected positioning of models and celebrities, all shot with subtle or overt humor. More than static portraits, his photos often appear as a still from a motion picture, with layers of plots ready to play out before our eyes.
It is only natural, then, that LaChapelle is making a move into video and film. The video "Natural Blues," with Moby, represents his most recent and successful effort. As Moby mentioned in our interview, though a huge fan of David’s, he was worried that given the brightness that typifies David’s work, David may not have been the right person to do the video for the subdued tones of "Natural Blues." However, David convinced Moby and his record company, V2, that he wanted to do something beautiful and earnest. The result is the most spiritual video to be in rotation on MTV in years.
Some people are offended when objects of devotion are depicted outside their traditional settings. Yet LaChapelle's photos tap into a truth about the American obsession with and devotion to celebrity by blending the sacred and the celebrated. When LaChapelle took his picture of Leonardo DiCaprio, there were thousands of girls who most likely would have chosen to meet Leonardo over meeting Jesus.
But I'd be wrong to say David himself is trying to make a point about anything. LaChapelle’s portraits with religious themes are often more whimsical than didactic, or even intellectual. Shock value isn't the goal. LaChapelle is guided by a sometimes mischievous muse, but not a malicious one. And in the "Natural Blues" video, he has created a work of religious art that transcends temporal glamour to attain true spiritual significance.
Moby said that the idea for the video "Natural Blues" was all yours, that basically he just showed up--
That's nice of him to say.
--that he just showed up and put on make up and that he is really happy with the results.
He's happy with it?
Yeah he is really happy with it.
Yeah, he better be, mama. (laughter)
So tell me how you came up with the vision for the video.
Well, my mom was a nurse in this old persons' home. I used to go visit all the old people there. They loved kids, and they loved having me around. There was an ancient woman who was a famous pianist when she was a young girl, but she was all but forgotten, you know--no one visited her. She had pictures of herself when she was this young girl and she was all beautiful.
I was thinking that you can have this fabulous life, young and having fun, and in 60 years, who the hell knows where we could be? We could all be forgotten, warehoused somewhere.
I had this nightmare a while back, a dream about how I was in a wheelchair and I was really old, with long gray hair and a beard. I couldn't move or anything and I was stuck in this place. That's all the dream was--left in this hallway, with all these other old people. I woke up so relieved not to be there. That was a few years ago that I had that dream.
So when you heard the song it kind of triggered that?
Well, when I heard the song, it sounded like someone at the end of their life, reconciling with being at the end of their life, you know what I mean? (Sings) "Don't nobody know my troubles but God, Don't nobody know ..."
Reconciling with being at the end of life, or with God or what?
Reconciling with God at the end of life.
So is it based on your own fear?
Based on that dream, and the song by Moby. The cool thing about Moby is that he takes samples of music from the '20s and '30s, music that is all but forgotten, and he's reintroducing it to a whole new audience. It's the best use of sampling there can be. It's easy to take a hit record from 15 years ago and lay down your tracks on it--like Puffy. But what Moby does is take music like blues and spirituals, with a lot of history and he reintroduces it. I mean, if you had told that singer from the '20s he was going to have a hit record in the year 2000, he would have freaked out. It is an incredible idea.
I want to talk about your photography a little bit. When did you first start using religious themes in your photography?
I sort of ... I don't know. Pictures reflect my life and my interest and I have always been interested in God and metaphysics. And so eventually, that's going to get into my pictures, when it is right, like with Moby. You get someone who brings it out because it is very beautiful and sincere. I mean, you don't want to do it with Britney Spears. That would be a different video.