By its very nature, the work of American photographer David LaChapelle invites controversy. One observer at New York magazine called LaChapelle “the Fellini of photography,” while another of the same periodical’s writers suggested, “David LaChapelle should have his artistic license suspended.”
If asked to describe his efforts, one might begin by calling them manic. But, in terms of art, such a label is ambiguous.
Mania can be the ferment of genius left to languish by a public that cannot or will not understand an artist’s intentions. Or it can be the product of an individual, with little to say, who takes an audience’s passing attention to his protestations as a testament to the viability of his message and its delivery. Think of the garrulous child who, having earned faint praise from parents for some clumsy living room theatrics, insists on repeating his performance twenty-five times.
LaChapelle’s prominence is primarily as an advertising and celebrity portrait photographer. As such, his oeuvre is accessible and sampling it is as easy as flipping through recent editions of French Vogue and the American magazines Rolling Stone, Interview and Detour. If one subscribes to the theory that advertising is among the truest barometers of a society’s collective psyche at any given time, LaChapelle’s relevance may be gauged by his garish spreads for Camel cigarettes and the signature, surrealistic scenes he dreamed up for Diesel jeans ads. As with his other work, there’s invariably too much color, too much going on, and whatever an audience of aesthetes might think, that’s how LaChapelle likes things.
The artist’s images are paradoxes. They are full of movement, using frantic action to depict the pathology of the contemporary soul.
But they share little with the type of raw photojournalism that such a stratagem might suggest. Instead, LaChapelle’s works are meticulously posed cartoons; their human subjects seem to be howling in anguish, lost in arm-waving throes of ecstasy, bleeding, but are so bloodless, so ponderously arranged, that they might as well be wax dummies.
One must acknowledge the singularity and recognizability of LaChapelle’s visual style. If any debt is owed, it is one of inspiration. Thirty years before LaChapelle began examining advertising as art and dissecting the phenomenon of celebrity, the same ground was tread by pop-art visionary Andy Warhol. I remind LaChapelle of an anecdote he once related to the New York Times about his first encounter with Warhol, in which the then-18-year-old novice presented his idol with one of his first pictures and had it languidly decreed, “great.”
“Later on, I learned that he could look at a cookie and say, ‘Great’,” LaChapelle told the Times.
“The thing you have to understand about Andy Warhol is that he didn’t get into analyzing [stardom]. He had a very straightforward attraction to the glamorous side of celebrity. I think that’s why he started Interview. And I totally understand it. The escapism is important in our lives.”
History may remember David LaChapelle as a frustrated social critic with a commentary worthy of attention. But in the present tense, he may remind audiences a little too much of that loud child in the living room, and many will find his work something only a mother could applaud.