David LaChapelle – Artist or Celebrity?

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I love Art.  I especially love Photography. More specifically, I love David LaChapelle’s photographs. And since I believe that everybody – EVERYBODY – should know him, I decided to dedicate my first post to him.


David LaChapelle is regarded to be one of the most famous contemporary photographers (in my opinion absolutely justified), working in the fields of fine art photography, as well as directing, advertising and fashion. I am really fascinated by LaChapelle’s way of blurring the distinctions between fine art photography, pop culture, celebrity magazine art and the fashion world, fusing high and low culture in an absolutely astonishing way. Known for his surreal and humorous style and sex-soaked photographs, I really like how the provoking character of LaChapelle’s composed works unsettle the more conservative audience, while he is hyped and celebrated by rather unconventional PopArt- and fashion-lovers (and me).

David La Chapelle is my favorite artist. Or is he a celebrity? What does an operlap between the usually distinct art world and celebrity world do to his credibility?  In this post, I will tell you who he is, what he does, what it is that I love, and why he is – in my opinion – one of the most controversial and provoking celebrity-artist.


David LaChaplle was born in Connecticut in 1963, and moved to New York at the age of fifteen, longing to become part of the shrill, gleaming Pop Art world, which captivated him and symbolized ultimate freedom, infinite possibilities and the salvation of bourgeois philistinism. He worked as a general dogsbody at ‘Studio 54’ next to the admired Andy Warhol.
Quite a nice way to being a career isn’t it?
Being fascinated by the new formed, ‘avant-gardish’ Pop Culture and “everything goes” mentality, he started working on his first own work, a portfolio of  nude photographs of his fellow students.  He showed it to Andy Warhol, who offered him his first job as a photographer at his Magazine “Interview”.


When I saw one of his photographs for the first time – it was at the vernissage of the Art Basel – I rightaway fell in loved with the unique ironical and grotesque style in his surreal worlds. In a way I had never seen before, LaChapelle combines this flashy, often erotic shrillness, with another layer of irony and criticism, which exists within a complexly arranged subtext that reminds me of a film setting.  He broaches the issues of mass consumerism, sexuality, materialism,  racism or the general biased character of contemporary Pop Culture.


Seeing his works is not only entertaining but predominantly very provoking. Sometimes I felt really unsettled and disturbed by his photographs and thus had mixed feelings, such as  dismissal, horror and disgust. Other images simply triggered a lot of thoughts or made me lough out load, as one of my absolute favourites, called ‘Death by Hamburger’. This image (seen on the left) shows a colourful oversized plastic air cushion in the form of a giant burger, smothering a slim model, who is laying half-naked on the ground, hinting at the American dietary habits with its strong leaning to fast-food.

Another one that asonished me in a more serious way is ‘The Pieta’, as I could recognize it as a modern interpretation of Michelangelo’s Pieta, Mary holding the dead Jesus. After examining it in more depth, I saw details like alcohol bottles in the background, the chosen embodiment of Courtney Love being Mary and the obvious resemblance between the person embodying Jesus and Kurt Cobain.  I did some research on this work and found out that this act of representing Jesus with the drug addict Cobain, who died because of an overdose, and this ‘abuse’ of a sacrificed biblical archetypal scene gave rise to an outcry of indignation among conventional, catholic Americans.
–  What an intelligently provoking artwork! Making people think about religion, their values, Pop Culture, drugs abuse, fame,…. And this multiplicity of interpretation, the depth of these photographs is only one reason WHY I LOVE HIM.
– Is there a better way to  criticize the bigotry of contemporary Pop culture, stumbling between the shiny celebrity-Hollywood-glamour world and the abysm of a destructive, disturbing world revolving around money, orgies and drugs?

Commissioned work for prestigious fashion magazines like Vanity Fair, Rollings Stones or Vouge established LaChapelle as the ‘Fellini of Photography’.The trendy reputation of being a superstar photographer created a hype, attracting celebrities, who wanted to picture themselves in one of LaChapelle’s hip exhibitions or books.  Pop icons like Madonna, Britney Spears, Elton John or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and celebrities in general (actors, athletes, and models) pride themselves of having cooperated with the ‘one and only’ LaChapelle.

His published photography books therefore contain poppy pictures of almost all contemporary ‘big fish’ showpieces of the Music-, Hollywood- and Fashion World, ranging from the queen of Pop to  the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Uma Thurman, Leonardo DiCaprio as well as Pamela Anderson, Naomi Campbell or Donatella Versace.
– Well, who woul
d not like to have a trendy, bizarre pop picture of himself hanging in the living room, being easily recognized as a ‘LaChapelle’? Is there a better statement to prove one’s ‘artiness’, trendiness and luxuriousness or to distinguish oneself from square, boring riches than cooperating with the “Fellini of Photography”?

What I found the most striking, however, was that I found out that LaChapelle did not only take pictures of celebrities: When I was looking through his hhotobook “from heaven to hell”, a discovered a photograph of  Hilary Clinton in 2001. On this picture, she is standing in an office, however what was really remarkable is the obviously critical subtext which is hard to oversee: there is a foul apple lying central on a desk in the foreground of the photograph. As we all know, apples have (thanks to Eve) a powerful symbolical meanings, referring for example to desire and temptation and are immediately associated with ‘original sin’ and the fall of mankind. Therefore, this little innocent fruit expresses much more than words could say and left me wondering: Did Clinton and her staff actually not get its symbolical meaning, hinting at her incompetence and incredibility as a political leader? Was the apple added to the picture at a later point of time? (I cannot image this, as the sues following such a manipulation of this kind would even rise above LaChapelles’ possibilities), or was the attention and prestige of being portrayed by the it-photographer considered to outweigh the negative influence of the picture?

I really wanted to add this picture here, however it’s – probably due to censorship – untraceable in the internet by now.  I will take a copy of the book though, once I am at home. – It really is a very interesting picture.

Besides these critical and ironical photographs, LaChapelle has worked in the field of advertisement, shooting and directing shrill spots for Pepsi, Channel, H&M, the TV series ‘Lost’, Burger Kind, Evian, Music videos and alcohol ads, to name just a few. Although I can still recognize these ads as LaChapelle’s because of their surreal, colourful action and the familiar high degree of nudity, the whole layer of serious social criticism is left out. All of a sudden, La Chapelle tranformed into an active participant in a purely commercial-money world only. Which left we wondering: Where did he leave his intelligent, thought-provoking approach? Even more, in my opinion LaChapelle  didn’t only ‘play the game’ he was clearly questioning before, but he also supported it by promoting consumer goods, using his reputation to make people consume even more. This shift from creating commercial but critical, provoking PopArt-like Photography to ‘the other side’, seriously campaigning for vodka, mascara, wonder-bras, fast-food or dulling TV series made me seriously question La Chapelle’s credibility. A horrible thought crossed my mind: maybe he had used the provoking and sexual force of his earlier photographs only as a means of ‘the shock of the new’ to get attention and never really meant to criticize a given bigotry. Had he become A CELEBRITY HIMSELF?

Nope, that can’t be true. I refuse to think that. I mean only system insiders can influence the direction the ‘system’ of the artworld is taking. Consequently, neglecting offers to direct or shoot ads would not only have been a career setback, but would have turned LaChapelle to a Maverick, taking him every chance to shape the advertisement world.

Fortunately, to my relief, LaChapelle became aware of his tendency to loose its fan support (I was seriously struggeling!) so that, after about twenty-five years at the very centre of both the vivid, competitive Fashion World and Celebrity World, LaChapelle decided to strike a new path. He wanted to regain the depth and seriousness of his early works and thus took photographs of an arrangement of Models in front of derelict houses in 2006, aiming to draw attention to climate change. Interestingly though, the Italian Vogue, who had ordered this new fashion shoot was shocked about the pictures, instead expecting his common surreal colour explosions. LaChapelle expressed his disappointment about the perpetual struggle of being accepted and need to exculpate his innovative work. Eeverybody merely pressed him to continue  making pictures in the same vivid, well known style –  new ideas and artistic development were hardly appreciated.

I feel for Poor David! His pride was hurt and so he made a decision: LaChapelle expressed that the bustling glamour-fashion world had lost its appeal of novelty:

“I love glamour, I love fashion. But when that’s the sole purpose it becomes limiting. (…) “It ended for me with Paris Hilton. I loved the superficial emptiness.”

Fleeing from the High-Society-Pressure and the mass-consumption World, LaChapelle retired from New York and bought a remote cottage in a former nudist colony on Hawaii.    I read an interview with La Chapelle’s Manager, saying that the artist wanted to abdicate his dependency from the gannet Art World he supplied, and acquit himself from the handcuffs of editorial choices and remittance work for ambitious celebrities. Being fed-up with the speed of the short-life  recognition of his works, as well as with the never ending demand for shiny, loud, celebrity-centred works, I was surprised to read that LaChapelle claimed to completely withdraw his commitment from producing commercials.

Would that mean no more lucid chaotic photographs that I loved so deerly?

His works following the retirement tell more serious, quiet stories, entailing an apocalyptical character, and are artistically determined only by LaChapelle himself” –  (Hompage)

Finally, when it comes to AUTHENTICITY, I must admit that it’s really not easy to asses LaChapelle’ character.  His early critical, grotesque, sexual photographs captivated, amused and disturbed me at the same time. These early images made me think of him as an revolutionary, daredevil artist, who was  bravely denunciating the double moral standards of Pop industry.  – Or so it seemed. But then there’s this other side: for more than twenty years, he has worked hard to be a Celebrity among other Celebrities, calling  New York, LA, Paris and London home, posing in front of Paparazzi and being best friends with Pamela Anderson – at least that is what she likes to claim.

Therefore, LaChapelle’s  “I consider being a farmer” – break with the ‘it’-image and the entailed retirement to the outback, unslaving himself from the chains of the (until very recently) celebrated, money-dominated  Celebrity world cought me out of the blue. It astonished the astonished the Art World players and drove his fans – me among them – almost to desparation.

However, I could not let it go and did some more research and here is what I found out:
I guess one can be sure that LaChapelle will recover in his ‘cottage’ pretty well: La Chapelle’s personal interior designer and a team of 35 constructors have spend almost two years organizing and furnishing the 5000m² refuge, that was bought for 1,5 million dollars. Gifts by celebrity friends ensure that the hermit does not feel too isolated.

Well,  withdrawal from the consuming society does have its prize, doesn’t it?

There is only one question I want to be answered: For how long will the, (what I now call) celebrity-artist LaChapelle bear staying away from showing up in the art scene, TV ads, the yellow Press and Hollywood’s red carpets?

–  I suppose he will be back at the Art Basel in June, at the latest. Who would miss the publicity of such a High-Society Event? And the Champaign during the opening of the “First look” is supposed to be just fantastic!

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