With color and flamboyance, David LaChapelle points his lens at advertising.
Everything 35-year-old David LaChapelle sees through his camera becomes larger than life. A celebrity photographer whose pictures are as much a part of pop culture as the subjects he is shooting, LaChapelle recently directed a Tommy-inspired musical ad for Citibank starring Elton John. Breaking this summer, the 60-second spot promoting Citibank’s sponsorship of Elton’s tour, out of Young & Rubicam, New York, features the song “Bennie and the Jets,” a three-story-high ATM machine, a giant bank card and dancing girls dolled up like fairies that fly out of the singer’s oversized piano. “They let me go pretty wild,” says a smiling LaChapelle, who was going for a Busby Berkeley-type musical extravaganza. “It’s very over the top.”
And it’s LaChapelle’s outlandish, attention-getting photographic style that has made him one of the hottest photographers today. His status among celebrities rivals that of Herb Ritts and Annie Lebowitz, especially among the younger Hollywood and music sets.
Where once LaChapelle had to coerce celebrities into posing bare-breasted with a can of Reddi Whip (Brooke Shields) or wearing a chicken suit (Tom Arnold), he now finds himself in demand–ad agencies want the photographer-turned-commercial-director to lend his kitschy glamour to their campaigns. LaChapelle’s ad work includes print executions for Jean Paul Gaultier, Airwalk sneakers, Pepsi and Diesel jeans (two sailors liplocked in a take on Alfred Eisenstaedt’s classic “VJ Day” photo) and TV spots for Citibank, Sprite, Nine & Co. and Armani jeans.
“I never set out to shoot a twisted image,” says LaChapelle of his uncompromising style. “It’s just what I wanted to see at the time. Those are the things I thought were beautiful.”
Breaking this month, a LaChapelle campaign for R.J. Reynolds’ Camel cigarettes out of Mezzina/Brown, New York, takes a humorous look at the concept of forbidden pleasures. One ad features a Garden of Eden temptation scene, shot not in a celestial paradise but in a more appropriate LaChapelle-style nightclub, complete with a sequined apple and a decked-out Adam and Eve perched on a zebra-patterned couch.
Recently named one of American Photo’s “100 most important people in photography,” the much-honored LaChapelle offers work that is supercharged with vibrant colors, sexuality and playful pop commentary. His 1996 book of photographs, LaChapelle Land, has become a staple in creative departments around the country for art directors seeking to infuse a bit of his candy-colored hyperreality into their campaigns.
“His book is so colorful and outrageous, we couldn’t resist [hiring him],” says Jeff Compton, art director at Weiss, Whitten, Stagliano who worked with LaChapelle on a Bass Ale campaign last fall. “We wanted him to bring his magic to it and take [us] to LaChapelle Land.”
The campaign, illustrating the line, “In a world of strange tastes, there’s always Bass Ale,” features photographs of a man licking a dominatrix’s shoe, a cyberbabe monster leaping out of a computer screen and a middle-age man with a lobster tattoo on his chest. “The concept was about pushing to the extreme,” Compton says. Thrilled with the results, Weiss, Whitten is considering LaChapelle for TV work as well.
LaChapelle’s credits his earliest creative inspiration to his mother, Helga, who often made elaborate productions out of family portraits. Spurred by mom, he took his first photo at the age of 7 on vacation in Puerto Rico–a picture of Helga in a bikini with a Frederick’s of Hollywood bra top and gold belt buckles.
A high-school misfit in the late 1970s, LaChapelle left the strip-mall world of his North Carolina hometown at age 15 and immersed himself in the New York nightlife of Studio 54, where he worked as a busboy. Though he returned home to study at the North Carolina School of the Arts, those disco days made an impact. At Studio 54, “a moon would come down from the ceiling, a spoon would go into its nose and then it would start snowing,” he describes in LaChapelle Land. “Everyone seemed beautiful, and the music was happy, happy, happy.”
LaChapelle was giddy three years later, when Andy Warhol, whom he met at a Psychedelic Furs concert at The Ritz, hired him at Interview magazine. Now, LaChapelle’s use of color and his flamboyant chronicling of pop culture elicits comparisons to his former boss. Other influences include Jean Cocteau, Helmut Newton, Jean-Paul Goude and Fellini.
Known for his in-your-face style (in magazines such as Details, Paris Vogue, Vanity Fair and The Face), LaChapelle says not all his work is wacky and off-center. Much of his photography for travel magazines is predominately “pretty pictures.” A recent shoot for Rolling Stone, featuring the U.S. women’s ice hockey team, simply shows the girls naked behind the American flag. “I’m at the point where it’s OK [for my work] to be beautiful,” he says, “although people still think I’m really sick.”
In his East Village studio, where props from previous photo shoots add a surreal decor to the space, LaChapelle pulls out a 1994 issue of Details magazine featuring a photo essay of then up-and-coming talent, like Rob Zombie of White Zombie, at home with their parents. “It was a breakthrough in my work,” says LaChapelle. “These pictures were the real America gone mad.”
The photo spread helped launch LaChapelle as a chronicler of American white-trash culture, but the photographer notes his work for advertising clients is years behind his editorial photography. “I’m not taking these types of pictures anymore, except for advertising,” says LaChapelle, referring to the detail-cluttered, overexaggerated characters seen in Camel ads in the U.S. and Salon Selectives in the U.K. “Editorial is a laboratory. That’s where I experiment and try things out. Advertising will usually come to me from something I’ve done in editorial.”
One of his editorial photographs, a portrait of actress Mira Sorvino for a 1997 issue of Allure, became larger than life for the wrong reason. The actress was outraged to see a photo–for which she had refused to pose–published in the magazine, Sorvino as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Computer manipulation allowed LaChapelle to complete his creative vision despite Sorvino’s protests and ignited a debate over artists’ and photographers’ rights. His zeal to shoot celebrities as he sees them, rather than how they see themselves, has often led to scuffles on the set. The Sorvino incident also led many to believe LaChapelle’s elaborate photo environments are the result of computer wizardry and not the hard work of set designers and makeup artists. Though he does at times digitally enhance his photos, his use of computers, he says, has been overblown.
Kristen Vallow, a 36-year-old art director and set designer who has been working full-time for LaChapelle for the past five years, helps the photographer turn fantasy into reality, if only for the limited time of the shoot. “I feel like I’m mining every weird obsession I ever had as a kid. To me, it’s like having a giant dollhouse,” says Vallow, surrounded by studio props. “No one likes to go back here anymore. It’s a labyrinth.”
Trained in architectural preservation, Vallow brings LaChapelle’s often outrageous vision to three-dimensional realization. “I’ve learned not to be surprised by David,” she says. “We like to have fun and create a fantasy world if only for a day, to represent things people wouldn’t normally see in a fashion magazine.” Admittedly, the challenge is “incredibly hard,” Vallow says. “David seems to have endless things he wants to do.”
LaChapelle’s elaborate productions are often described as “little movie sets,” so it’s no surprise the photographer has, in the past few years, made the transition from print to directing commercials and music videos. He made his live-action debut in 1995 with a promo for MTV’s Raw, a hilarious sendup of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. “Commercial work is challenging,” says LaChapelle, who directs through Venus/HSI in New York. “I’m good at telling a story. Each photograph tells a story. It’s a chance for my pictures to walk and talk.”
LaChapelle recently directed two spots for Sprite through Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York. Part of Sprite’s ongoing “Image Is Nothing” campaign, one ad features faux spokespeople dancing through a supermarket’s aisles. A second, titled “Tripplicious,” is a spoof of Wrigley’s “doublemint” commercials with oddball sets of triplets. “His stuff is so retro-futuristic and hip. It’s like Speed Racer,” says Todd Godwin, executive vice president, group creative head at Lowe & Partners. “His art department descended on the job and did their magic. They put the ‘La’ in LaChapelle.”
How did he handle the role of commercial director? “He’s good at comedy and timing,” says Godwin. “He got on the blowhorn and he was like Cecil B. DeMille.”
With a screenplay in the works, LaChapelle’s next creative outreach will be films. Set in North Carolina, “it’s a story about unconditional love between mother and child,” he says. The independent film’s quality will “be less than the standards of my photographs,” he cautions. “But it’s twisted. Definitely twisted.”