David LaChapelle On The Spot

David LaChapelle’s celebrity-studded, sexually charged images have drawn comparisons to Fellini and Dali. Trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts, HSI’s LaChapelle, 36, has directed music videos (Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl”), commercials (Burger King’s racy “Fantasy Ranch”) and a film, Rize, the acclaimed documentary on the freestyle dance trend krumping. Most recently, he shot a Romeo and Juliet tale for an H&M spot, and his new book, Artists and Prostitutes, will debut in December. LaChapelle took a break from his workaholic schedule to discuss what colors his artistic passions.

Q: Why make your first film a documentary?

A: Just suddenly I was doing it. …To me, it’s very similar to everything I’ve done, ’cause it’s colorful and surreal and dramatic. But it has a story and music. It’s all the things I love … all those things that have been a part of my photography. For me, it’s not a big stretch. It’s almost like I couldn’t have found anything more tailor-made.

You’re used to working in controlled environments. What did you find challenging?

The biggest challenge was making sure that I remained authentic and captured all the things that were going on around me—give this stuff the respect that it deserves and protect it from getting screwed up.

Krumping has been compared to break dancing. Will it catch on in the same way?

I don’t think it will because it’s not as camera-friendly. It’s much more aggressive.

Why pick up a camera and record it, then?

It doesn’t work well in the short take. If you glance at it, it just looks like people wilding out and fighting. It really needed a film to understand it because it’s so different-looking. When you really get into it and explore it, you see that it’s got all these layers. It’s the way they’re getting their aggression and anger out. And here are the reasons for the anger. And here’s a look at these kids who are perceived as thugs and gangsters and pimps and hustlers, and they’re being shown as artists. These are kids from the hardest families in the ghetto, and they’re sensitive and caring, and they’re choosing to create rather than destroy themselves. The dance becomes much more profound when you know the story.

What did you learn from the kids?

I learned a lot about life in South Central. I didn’t really understand what the ghetto meant ’cause I’m from New York and-— we’re so integrated in New York—no matter where you live, in the worst part of the Bronx, you’re still 15 minutes away from Fifth Avenue and Rockefeller Center. In Los Angeles, it’s so segregated, it’s like another planet. There’s such an oppressiveness; you don’t really understand that just visiting. But when I was there for two and a half years doing the film, I really started to understand the weight of the circumstances of living in that area. There is no opportunity and nothing for young people to do when school’s out. They never study African art or dance. Yet they were doing this dance that was so African because it was just sort of in them, and it came out.

Who has influenced you the most?

Andy Warhol. Working at Interview [magazine] was really my college. … He didn’t stick to one medium or one look. He did silk screens, drawings, photography. He ran a magazine, had a television show and he did films. He never limited himself to what people said he should do or could do or, you know, what a serious artist does or anything like that. He did commercial art. He didn’t really separate commercial work and fine art. It was all the same to him.

Is it all the same to you?

I don’t differentiate it at all. I love the fact that it’s getting printed and published and on television and in theaters. The fact that it gets out into the world, gets taken in and digested by people, and people own it because they’ve bought the magazine or the DVD or downloaded the video. To me, that’s when it’s complete.

What is your favorite picture?

God, there’s so many. Sharon [Gault] under the glass bubble. It’s the picture called “The Lonely Doll.” And a picture called “My House,” the one with the pink house. So many of my favorite subjects are of people that I know, like Pam Anderson. They all have good memories attached because they’re like snapshots of my life.

What is the last commercial you saw that made you say, “I wish I had done that”?

Paul Hunter’s [“Be”] for Nike. All the little vignettes that he captured were amazing. I wouldn’t have done it the same way. But I love it. There was no irony in it.

Anyone you’re dying to work with?

You just open your life to what comes your way. The subject for Rize came my way. It was in front of me while I was doing a music video, but I was open to that.

What’s your greatest accomplishment so far?


What three words would best describe you? Hot, horny, hung? I don’t know. (laughing) That’s really bad. Well, I try to think of how someone would describe themselves in one of those ads in the paper. If I had my personal ad, I’d say hot, horny, hung.

What do you find sexy?

When somebody doesn’t realize that they’re hot, horny and hung. I love when somebody’s really beautiful and they don’t really know that they are. There’s something really refreshing about that.