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Interview with David LaChapelle

Aired June 22, 2011 - 06:30:00   ET



ANJALI RAO, CNNI ANCHOR (voice-over): He's had Courtney Love pose as Mary Magdalene and pictured the late Michael Jackson as a martyr, visions that have helped David LaChapelle's catapult from struggling artist to world famous photographer.

He's also injected his signature style into music videos directing them for artists such as Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera although his flirtatious explorations of pop culture, fashion and religion haven't pleased everyone.

Critics slammed his depiction of Kanye West as a black Jesus and he stirred up controversy with his Lolita-like take on a young Britney Spears. That didn't stop this prodigy of Andy Warhol shine away from a challenge.

In 2002, LaChapelle's talked photographed the video and financed his own documentary about the dance craze cramping in South Central Los Angeles.

This week on TALK ASIA, we catch up with David LaChapelle and his latest exhibition in Hongkong and find out why he ditched the glitch and glamour of fashion photography to return to his autistic roots.


RAO: Now, this is your latest exhibition showing in Hongkong and this is the first time that you have shown anything here. It's also the first time that the "Raft" and also the "Bruce Lee" collection have been shown globally. What was the motivation behind bringing them to an international audience now?

DAVID LACHAPELLE, PHOTOGRAPHER: Well, these pictures, these Bruce Lee images in particular were made specifically for China. After coming here over a year ago into Beijing, I just started reading the Tao, Confucianism and Buddhism and try to get a handle on the philosophies that made up - this really rich ancient culture.

RAO: It's a little bit different to what we know you're best for which is these, you know, crazy felon of hyper stylized sex meet celebrity portrait shots. Where is your style come from? Because you look at something and it just screens David LaChapelle.

LACHAPELLE: Well, I never really thought about style, you know. It was always more about what - what I wanted to say and I was attracted to color and styles. I mean, it really just happened. The concept of things or what interested me most is the story or the narrative behind an image, interested me more than just how things look for the form of things. I just never wanted to get stuck within this sort of idea of what my work should look like because that can be limiting.

RAO: You're a big fan of nudity in your pictures --

LACHAPELLE: The figure is important to me. It represents many, many things. At the present time, for me it's a sort of this idea of (inaudible) a figure for meaning one thing in photography. In photography, I feel like we're in this new sort of dark ages and the dark ages, the new body (inaudible) something sinful.

Today, we look at it as something to be bought and sold. Some sort of a product or some sort of means of sexual gratification and I wanted to rescue in my own small way as a photographer and as an artist to rescue the figure so that it again will mean something more of what it did in the renaissance, the idea of spiritual clothing.

This is more than just (inaudible) and after years of working in fashion and celebrity was kind of a paradox. You know, to be having these thoughts and these ideas while working in the realm of publications, which really solved that notion.

RAO: We can certainly see with, you know, things like the photos that you've done of Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton --

LACHAPELLE: Yes, these are the people that made our world. These were - these were what America was about for those 18 years that I was photographing. My goal was to really photograph everything like a tourist and what America was about. It's - it's choices and not judgement, not with judgment, but with just questioning of all these consumptions and all these like celebrity worship. And you can see very clearly in some of the pictures how they really are - just, you know, people just worshiping - the celebrity.

RAO: Yes, you said that we live in an unshockable world. Yes, people who frequently been taken aback by the images that you depict. What have you made of the public reaction to your work?

LACHAPELLE: I'm shocked. Honestly, I've never ever setup to take a picture that shocked anyone. I definitely give them the unexpected. I wanted to stop people in the magazine. That was my goal. Just get them to stop for a minute while they're sipping through and hope (inaudible). But if not, just look at it long enough to take it in.

RAO: There is this - this sort of coming together of sexuality and religion. Really your trademark I think these days and you know, that case in point was when you did Pieta with Courtney Love and she's cradling this guy, he's a combination of Christ and Kurt Cobain. Tell me about doing that shoot. It must been really emotional for her.

LACHAPELLE: It was. I mean, it's emotional for all of us and for me this is a symbol of ultimate loss. There's nothing that symbolizes loss or grief more than a mother losing a child.

And so we dyed my friend's hair blonde who was to be held by Courtney. When he walked out on to the set - I'll never forget it. It's actually on the web site. You can watch the filming because Courtney thought we were shooting the nativity. She had the Pieta and Nativity mixed up in her head.

You know, she's very smart girl. I mean, she just got it mixed up. She thought --

RAO: One is Christ's birth and the other is death.

LACHAPELLE: I know exactly, but I mean, it's just - if you get on the web site, you can see the whole conversation. They filmed the whole shoot. But anyway, she thought she was holding a baby. She's holding a grown man.

RAO: He looks like --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am fine. I was just kidding, you know - to people and whole different things and then, you know --


LACHAPELLE: I said, Courtney, you don't have to do this - and we all felt it as soon as he walked out and I saw the resemblance because we just bleached Walker's hair blonde and glued this, you know, beard onto him - I said, you don't have to do this.

She said, no, it's OK. So that was - that's the story behind that picture and she went ahead and did it. And it was emotional doing that photograph.

I admire her for doing it, but it wasn't done with any sense of - of exploitation or sort of trying to make some sort of spectacle of it. It was really done with the purest intentions.

RAO: Coming up, David LaChapelle talks about the pop art pioneer who would jumpstart his career.


LACHAPELLE: The purpose they push the colors and these extra heart and can lift a little green because I wanted them to resemble the movie posters in the 1970s.

These are all studies that I made, basically sketches or just playing around with photographs and cutting off - really just - never really meant for show, but the gallery wanted to exhibit because it is part of, I guess, the process if you will. I spent 12 years working in dark rooms and now I was working for (inaudible) and sketches and doing these little things so part of these little (inaudible) being utilized in the final pieces.

This chapter (inaudible) and they wind up on the shores of paradise or alignment and we shot those in Hawaii and beginning there was now - this isn't really just about a tsunami or a particular storm or disaster. It's not apocalypse in that sense. For me, it's about the struggles that we all go through in our lives.

RAO: Religion plays a big part in your work. To what extent though does it in your life? I know that you were brought up in a strict Catholic household.

LACHAPELLE: My dad, you know - I was the third kid to come along so I think I got away with murder compared to my brother and sister. It was a very open, really loving childhood and having grown up with, you know, my mom who is had an incredible sense of humor, naturalness. We would, you know, swim together, make it as a family - you know, my father is very Catholic.

His brother is a priest. He has a sense humor about things and I just took that for granted in the sense that religion became such a - sort of an off word. You know, sort of off putting word especially in the world of art. Although I study different religions and right now, I'm really into Taoism and I believe the main religions of the world are rivers that lead to the same emotion.

RAO: From what you've described of your childhood. Just that little snap shot before, it sounds idyllic. Yet you managed to take yourself off to New York, what, 15?


RAO: Why?

LACHAPELLE: Well, at home it was - it was great, but I was different, you know, from the other kids and sort of angel story. You know, we've heard it a million times. I've been bullied at school and it was either, you know, kill myself or move to New York, really. And - that was it. I found my home.

New York City - yes, (inaudible) when I was 14 and then to the downtown clubs and at 15, I just left school altogether -

RAO: When you did (54) is craziest thing (inaudible)?

LACHAPELLE: It was magical. I mean, it really - I wasn't into it. You know, I was very young. I didn't do drugs or drink. I want to dance and the music was incredible and the lights and everyone looked so beautiful. It was never crowded. You know, it was (inaudible) smashed up together. Everyone had the room to dance and you know, it was just - the most exciting I've ever seen.

RAO: Obviously, Andy Warhol thought something in you that he decided to notch. He gave you your first job at "Interview" magazine. Tell us how instrumental he was in - really in getting you where you are today and what he meant to you?

LACHAPELLE: At 18, although I didn't have a diploma, I had a portfolio, the photographs. I've been going to - showing him the pictures and - because finally I had something to talk to him. I said, I have some photographs, can I come by and show you.

And Andy said, they're great, they're great and I was like (inaudible). I was really excited. He liked the photograph what he said he did and when I had my second show in New York, they came - the staff of "Interview" and they asked me if I work for the magazine.

And that led to working from '84 to '87 and then doing the last portrait of Andy before he died. I put two bibles beside his head and framed it. (Inaudible) that he went to church every Sunday when he was in New York. I didn't know that would turn to be the last portrait.

And yet, and that working for him - in the world of magazines to me and I couldn't make a living off of the galleries. I put my heart and soul into these pictures, but they weren't selling. I had to survive and that became a really great opportunity.

RAO: You know, you mentioned that you had to do certain things to survive as you're working your way up to be a photographer. I understand that you also had to work for a time as an escort, which you know, to me sounds like terribly sad thing to have to resort to.

LACHAPELLE: You know, I was - I was 18 years old. I was pretty smart having been (inaudible) since I was 15. I was 17, 18 years old and the movie "American Gigolo" just come out with Richard Gear and it seemed kind of glamorous. But - and I couldn't really hold down a job.

Photography was really, really expensive and yes, there was a time where it was - I guess, you could look at it as sad. I - I know that the world is different today and I certainly wouldn't want to give the impression that that was something cool to do or that I would recommend it because I don't. The world is such a different place.

Now, it is done over the internet and God know, you know, it's much more dangerous. You don't know really who can meet, but there was (inaudible) that you go to New York City and talk to gentlemen. I was at a good sense and I would talk to them and thank God I was never really wrong about what I was getting into.

And there was a certain respect that when I got a dinner out of it and sort of have a conversation, but I would talk to these people and see them face to face before going anywhere with them and it was a really, you know, easy way to make $150 seemed at the time.

You know, though I did it for a short time. It's not something, you know, I'm proud of or really not something I would recommend for anyone to do today. It was a different world.

Working with it - very tense and not pleasant. Some people are easy and fun and - but on the other (inaudible), I have to say she's one of the hardest people to work with.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is ghetto ballet. This is how we express ourselves. This is the only way we see fit of storytelling. This is the only way of making ourselves feel that we belong.


RAO: Let's talk about Rize because that was your first full length movie and I think when people knew that you were going to do a movie, they will just assume that you would call your fantastic celebrity (inaudible) into play, but you didn't.

You went down to south central L.A. to document life down there particularly in line with a dance craze that was happening at that time. How come you decide to do that?

LACHAPELLE: It was an art movement. I looked it at more like, you know, that art will come out in even the most oppressive situations that through art will still find a way to grow between the cracks in the sidewalk and use our schools, you know, the school district in Los Angeles is one of the poorest in the nation, in America. And they don't have art classes.

You know, they don't have African History. They don't have dance and these kids have developed this art form. It really had - had this cultural imprint of this movement that they were expressing themselves or anger was getting - instead of joining a gang. The choices they are making were heroic and I looked at them and they're looking any other star. I treated them as such.

RAO: And they weren't suspicious of you?

LACHAPELLE: No, no. They weren't. They didn't know who I was or anything or - photography or anything like that. It wasn't until few months of filming that they, I saw you on the red carpet - what are you doing? Once they found out, they were like even happier that - that someone who is working in that world of - of you know popular culture was interested in them.

RAO: So from your still portrait, you then moved into commercials and music videos and that's one story that I'd love and I feel relate to us. In 2005, you're down to the "Hang Up" by Madonna, but you haven't spoken since. What happened?

LACHAPELLE: I always wanted the Madonna video. Madonna had a history of great videos and working with great directors. And I'd like doing music videos a lot. It was the first thing off the album, which is a prestigious thing to do.

When I met with her, it was so - I felt, well, she's really changed. It wasn't going to be this tension - because working with her was always very tense, very tense and not pleasant at all.

RAO: What she liked?

LACHAPELLE: I don't know. It's very tense. Some people are very easy and fun and have fun with them, but on the other (inaudible), I have to say she's one of the hardest people to work with in terms of just making everyone very on the edge and uneasy. It was really unpleasant experience doing stills with her.

So when we're slated to do the video, I met with her and she was very funny and charming and she's really changed and then I was hired to do the video and as soon as it happen, she's on the phone. She was yelling at me and everything I said was - I don't understand why she was yelling at me.

And I'd never really said no to a job. I definitely was a workaholic. I have to say. So I was kind of it's like workaholic - 11 months straight, you know, I find (inaudible) myself. It cost a million dollars.

So I was having this phone call with her and she's screaming at me and I just got really quiet. I didn't say anything and she is just talking and talking and said, David, are you there?

And I said, yes, I'm still here and she said, hold on. And my head was shaking and I hang up the phone and then I said, you know, I just did this film in south central Los Angeles. It was dangerous, you know marginalized, impoverished neighborhoods in the United States and I never was shaking.

I'm shaking - when I'm talking to her and she was sitting next to me and she said like (inaudible). You just hang up with me and I said, yes, I did. And from that moment on, it was a real turning point.

I have to really think about this. I don't - this is a negative thing or something (inaudible), but since you asked, it really was a turning point. It really was the first time I said -

RAO: You hang up on hang up.

LACHAPELLE: I hang up on hang up. And then it was easy to say no and that really led (inaudible) I was Maui with my --

When I was kid growing up in New York in this village and first starting photography I think I had - just this dream. I guess, my big goal - I have a cabin in the woods. (Inaudible) having a garden, to live off as an artist and that was really three things I wanted in life.

RAO: When you did get back to photography after your retreat in Hawaii. You came back with things like the (inaudible) Africa. How much work goes into these opulence pieces that you do?

LACHAPELLE: A lot of work goes into them because I have more time now to think and I can spend a lot more time making these pictures say what I want them to say and using the vocabulary that I learn working for magazines and music videos and all the rest and employ those ideas or techniques of communicating.

RAO: So you live this quiet life now in Maui and you didn't really say much to the whole, you know, celebrity thing anymore, but do you feel like a different David LaChapelle now than you were back then?

LACHAPELLE: I kind of feel more back to where I was when I was starting out with a lot more life experience, but I think more is coming home to myself. I think that, you know, that art can change things.

I think that through art, we can gain enlightenment through art. We can learn about ourselves and our culture and the time we live in and that's always in the role of contemporary art and so I think that that - I was part of those ideals.

RAO: David, thank you so much indeed for spending time with us today.

LACHAPELLE: You're welcome. Thank you for your insightful and well researched questions.