Photographer David LaChapelle offers a salve for the end times

For photographer David LaChapelle, the signs signal the end of days—the Thwaites Glacier, or “Doomsday Glacier”, barely has a shadow overhead; Seasons of raging fires have caused the Amazon to be brutalized; He said in a phone call that critical changes in the jet streams are causing extreme weather conditions all over the world.

He added that on Maui, where LaChapelle pulled out in 2006 to get off the grid and reset his life, drought has decimated the emerald green island of its color in many areas.

The artist and filmmaker’s acclaimed practices are deeply rooted in his Christian faith, and he has recently become fascinated by a particular passage from the Bible describing the finality of the world – how men will be “self-lovers” during the “tough times of the last days.” Around him, LaChapelle saw the idea reflected in The selfie is all over the place, with the camera turned inward out of vanity rather than introspection. He saw the performance all over the place from the people he passed, and then felt sad when the camera fell.

“In my father’s generation,” he said, “men were not ‘self-loving.’” (There wasn’t) this self-obsession with our body that we see today.”

“Men Will Be Self-Lovers” (2021, Los Angeles) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

“Sadness” (2021, Los Angeles) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

LaChapelle interpreted the Bible in a portrait form last year – a nude model sitting in front of a mirror, tears wet on his face, holding a phone with a distorted image of him on the screen. Gently curling up on half of the mirror’s shell, he evokes Botticelli’s “birth of a flower,” but sadly retreats inwardly rather than joyfully reaching the edge of the scallop shell.

The image is one of the latest works in a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s 40-year career of bold commercial imagery and finely curated allegorical painting, called Make It Believe, at Fotografiska in New York. It’s LaChapelle’s first solo museum exhibit in town, and blocks from 303 Gallery, where he held his first show in 1984, around the same time he was working with Andy Warhol, was filming for Interview magazine.

“Fly On My Sweet Angel Fly on the Sky” (1988, Connecticut) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

“It’s a whole moment, and there are some pieces from that first show in this show that really held up,” he said. Those, airy black-and-white portraits of wig-wearing friends recalling Renaissance silhouettes, show the artist’s longstanding fondness for portraits saturated with rich historical art references.

“What does a soul look like?”

Fotografiska’s architecture, which evokes the atmosphere of a church in Renaissance Revival style, is a fitting backdrop for LaChapelle, who continually returns to religious themes in his work, from painted portraits of winged men he made during the AIDS crisis, to portraits of famous celebrities: Kanye West wearing the Crown of Thorns of Jesus or David Bowie in the image of the Virgin Mary in the form of “Peta”. In recent years, he has reinterpreted classic biblical scenes in a vivid and ethereal color palette against a lush Maui backdrop, creating sparkling halos to his figures using long exposures of rotating lights.

“Staircase-to-Paradise” (2018, Hawaii) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

Despite his reputation for provocative celebrity photos, LaChapelle uses religion not subversively, but seriously in his work. He explained in the program’s press preview that the loss of several close friends and a boyfriend in his early twenties left a profound mark on his life, and he lived for 15 years without knowing his own HIV status. He made portraits to leave a legacy.

“What does a soul look like? Is there heaven? These are the questions I was having at the time,” he said in a phone interview about his early work. “Where does my 21-year-old friend’s energy go when he dies?”

But he was also reconciling his faith with a dark cultural period in which prominent Christian priests were criticizing the gay community for their “sins” and blaming them for the epidemic that was killing them mercilessly.

“Behold” (2015, Hawaii) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

“Mary Magdalene: An Enduring Lament” (2018, Los Angeles) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

“I haven’t listened to people who twist the word of God into something ugly,” LaChapelle said. He continued, “I understand why (homosexuals in society) are angry with Christianity. I understand, I understand.” “But I knew the truth – the truth is that he is a loving God. And you see that reflected in my nearly 40-year journey.”

sense of balance

There was often a push and pull to get LaChapelle out, as he snapped brilliantly scanned photoshoots of beauty and celebrities while contributing some of pop culture’s most iconic images, such as teen Britney Spears on the phone and in bed with Teletby, and nude Naomi Campbell dousing herself in milk. , both of which were taken in 1999.

But his editorial and commercial images are just the tip of the iceberg for his prolific personal work. “Make Believe” includes abandoned gas stations influenced by Edward Hopper, highly saturated still spirits based on Dutch “Vanitas” paintings, and Georgia O-Keeffe’s scaled back compositions of tropical flowers that go big. Although he has always incorporated the environment into his work, his reverence for the natural world has become a mainstay of modern images.

“My Own Marilyn” (2002, New York) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

“My Own Liz” (2002, New York) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

“I love the solitude of nature,” he said, “and the peace it brings to me—I feel closer to God.” “Then in the meantime, I love the glamor and pop stars in this whole thing too. And I think it’s possible to enjoy both, and be inspired by both.”

LaChapelle worked on this balance in his personal life as well, leaving Los Angeles to live on a self-contained farm in East Maui. “I’ve never wanted to portray another pop star – I was tortured by them,” he told The Guardian in 2017, but chose to shoot selectively rather than abandon this aspect of his career altogether. In recent years, he has photographed celebrities including Dua Lipa, Lizo, and Kim Kardashian.

“I wanted balance in my life,” he said. “I can pick the jobs I want to take on and then the rest of the time…just nurture friendships and make up for those lost years that I didn’t develop in other areas.”

“Doja Cat; Gone With the Wind” (2021, Los Angeles) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

“There was a time in my life that I was a workaholic, which is similar to being a drug addict because it’s a bit stunted,” he said. “Yeah, you have this great career, but you haven’t developed your relationship skills to where they need to be. I’m going to be in a relationship, and in the middle of trouble I’m going to be on the plane. I’m like, ‘Oh, she’s going to work out herself.’ And that’s not how relationships work. If You want to work, you have to work it out, talk about it and be present and be there.”

Transformation in the world

Amid climate change, war, mass disease and political strife, all of which LaChapelle believes amount to an “existential crisis for our survival,” the photographer is appalled by the state of art and culture – something he has often discussed. He believes that the media we consume is too violent, and that music and art lack a clear, focused direction.

“Art has always been a reflection of the time we live in,” he said, referring to the 1960s protest songs that served as “soundtracks” for a turbulent period of war and activism. “We don’t have the spirit of the age – where’s the music? Where’s the art?”

LaChapelle compares the afflictions of our time to autoimmune infections like AIDS on a global scale, calling it “the breakdown of the immune system on the planet.”

“Earth Laughs in Flowers; Wilting-Gossip” (2008-2011, Los Angeles) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

“I think that’s why a lot of people quit their jobs, and I don’t think it was just covid or getting a check,” he said. “I really think people feel like something is different in the world, and they don’t want to do work that doesn’t mean anything.”

Already in 2006, LaChapelle was thinking about major upheavals of catastrophic proportions. He made the massive Sistine Chapel-inspired photomontage “The Flood” next, showing a crowd of nude characters in distress as torrential waters threaten to wash them away in Las Vegas. But during the “Make Believe” press presentation, the artist recounted how a visitor to the show told him years ago that he believed everyone’s arms extended to take things for themselves in the last moments of their lives. LaChapelle, a believer in society, meant the opposite.

“It is humanity at its best,” he explained in front of the artwork. “When I did it, it was really about extending all hands and helping each other, even though they know it’s over, that this may be removed – the end is near. So it’s really the idea that people love each other, even at the end of time” .

“Jonathan’s spirit was intertwined with David’s and Jonathan loved him as his soul” (2021, Los Angeles) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

Archangel Michael; and no message could have been clearer (2009, Hawaii) attributed to him: David LaChapelle/Photographica New York

For him, he also found solace in human contact even when the world felt miserable and on the verge of collapse.

“I have a good friend who is here and we laugh and swim when we’re together,” he said over the phone. “I do my job, go swimming every day – and that brings me joy, clean water, fresh air. These things we have always considered the true luxuries in life.”

When LaChapelle returned from a flight earlier this summer, he was greeted with a Maui brown he wasn’t used to when the plane landed. But on the other side of the island, where it had rained recently, he saw life renewed.

“I went to Hana, on the east side where I live,” he said, “and everything was new.” “Just three months of rain brought everything back to life – there was healing power.”

make believeOn display at Fotografiska New York now through January 9, 2023.

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