New York, May 2011 – In 2006 David LaChapelle did something he never imagined he would do: say no to Madonna. It was a decision that would trigger a profound and positive change in his life. After that the legendary photographer of celebrities stepped away from the commercial world and moved off the grid to a retreat in Maui with visions of farming. There were more pictures in him, he knew, but he didn’t think galleries and museums were an option.
That changed when his long-time friend and production manager, Fred Torres, got in touch one sunny day with an offer from the Rafael Jablonka Gallery. They didn’t want celebrities; they wanted LaChapelle to do whatever he wanted. Two weeks later LaChapelle was in the Sistine Chapel, looking up at Michelangelo’s Deluge, a work he had always wanted to reinterpret (and did in 2009). Since then LaChapelle has produced a number of impressive pictures that have spent more time on gallery walls than between the covers of a magazine.
Until this May, however, the only people who had seen LaChapelle’s photographs from the eighties were those people who saw them in the eighties. “Early Work” is just that, a sampling of photographs from the first gallery exhibitions LaChapelle had in New York. ArtSlant contributor Charlie Schultz met LaChapelle at Michelman Fine Art to talk about those early photographs, how they connect to what he is doing now, and what it feels like to see them back on gallery walls.
David LaChapelle, Untitled, c.1984-1988, Chromogenic Print, 14 x 11 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Michelman Fine Art
Charlie Schultz: I’m curious, how long has it been since you’ve seen these pictures? Have you had them around you over the years?
David LaChapelle: No. Not at all. They’ve been in boxes. Honestly if it wasn’t for my amazing studio manager, who packaged them all in perfect archival conditions, I probably would have lost them.
CS: What is it like to see them again?
DLC: Wow. I thought it would be horrifying, but I was surprised. When we started pulling them out of the boxes and looking at them all together I thought they weren’t so bad. Some are actually pretty cool. I was doing some really experimental stuff: cutting up negatives, painting on negatives, making tiny little collages out of negatives and scotch tape.
CS: Who are the models? I usually recognize the people in your work, but these people don’t look familiar.
DLC: Some are friends; some are people I became friends with. This is my friend Franco Bruno. He died of AIDS. He was Martin Burgoyne’s boyfriend. Martin was best friends and roommates with Madonna back then. Me and Martin and Frank all worked at Studio 54 together. Let me tell you, it’s a lot more fun to go to clubs than to work at them.
David LaChapelle, Untitled, c.1984-1988, Chromogenic Print, 24 x 20 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Michelman Fine Art
CS: What was going on around you then that was influencing your work?
DLC: A lot of this stuff was about dealing with mortality because people were dying—friends were dying. My boyfriend Luis died very fast. He was dancing off Broadway, full of energy, and then just a few months later he was dead. So these pictures were all about questioning what happens when we die. Where does that energy go? I thought for many years I was [HIV] positive. I thought I had to be. I was having sex before there was safe sex. I never thought I’d live beyond twenty-four.
CS: Sounds like a very anxious time.
DLC: It was a nightmare. My friends who had AIDS in the hospital didn’t get any treatments. Friends would take care of them, changing their catheters because the doctors were afraid to get near them. Every time I got a bruise I thought it was kaposi. But you still danced. You still went to clubs. And besides, I was the healthiest person in the East Village. I was big time into holistic things. I was brought up macrobiotic. I figured I was better off without all the medicine—the stuff then would kill you too—but when I found out I was negative that was a huge weight off my shoulders.
CS: When was that? Before or after you made these pictures?
DLC: I don’t know exactly when, dates all kind of blur, but it was definitely after I made these photographs. It was the early nineties, maybe like '92, around when I started working for Detail [Magazine].
David LaChapelle, Untitled, c.1984-1988, Chromogenic Print, 24 x 20 inches each; Courtesy of the artist and Michelman Fine Art
CS: It’s interesting to me that you came to your commercial career though an earlier artistic effort, and after almost two decades of successful commercial work, you’ve come back to producing art. Is there is big distinction between the two forms or platforms for you?
DLC: There is a big difference for me, because one is born out of my ideas and there is no one telling me what to do. I always thought when Tony Shafrazi, my dealer, would show the celebrity portraits it was more of a novelty thing. I didn’t take it too seriously. I figured people were just coming to see Britney [Spears] and Pam [Anderson].
David LaChapelle, Untitled, c.1984-1988, Chromogenic Print, 20 x 16 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Michelman Fine Art
CS: Does your commercial work influence your artwork, or vice versa?
DLC: Yes, absolutely. I want to be true to myself and for me that means using everything I learned working for magazines. I don’t believe it was a twenty-year detour or anything. That work taught me how to communicate, how to get people’s attention. It was like twenty years of schooling. I think much more is expected of a picture hanging on a wall in a gallery or museum than what is expected in a magazine.
CS: Speaking of which, you are doing an installation at the Lever House in June that will be up at the same time as these pictures. Can you make a connection between the two exhibitions?
DLC: A big connection. I’m glad that this show is here because it really lets people see where the work at the Lever House is coming from. The last show I did for a gallery in New York City was in '91 and no one even saw it. I sort of re-envisioned that show, plus I added two new components, for the Lever House. It’s basically a lot of installation and collage, which pretty obviously has roots in these early works.
ArtSlant would like to thank David LaChapelle and Michelman Fine Art for his assistance in making this interview possible.