David LaChapelle: “There are at least six series about Ted Bundy and none about Stevie Wonder. What does this mean for our society?

David LaChapelle arrived in New York at the age of 15. The reasons for his arrival were not the most auspicious. It was not a family move: on the contrary, LaChapelle settled in the Big Apple escaping from his house and the bullying he suffered at school.

Although his father was not long in coming looking for him, New York life still had several surprises in store for him. At 18 he returned to the city, and despite the fact that the first years were not easy at all (some of his photographs emerged at a time when he did not even have money to pay the electricity bill) the great opportunity to work together would soon arrive. Andy Warhol in the iconic magazine Interview, journalistic bastion of the pop art movement.

Andy Warhol: Last Sitting. 1987. Photo: David LaChapelle

Thus, with a unique perspective, compositions full of color and vitality, and unquestionable talent, his name quickly rose as one of the most influential in contemporary photography. Stars of the stature of Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, David Bowie, Dua Lipa and Eminem have posed through his lens, while his work – full of pop references, religiosity and social criticism – is worthy of transversal recognition.

Seven years after his last visit to our country, the artist landed in Santiago as the main course first version of the Canon Zoom In Project in Chileheld yesterday. There, he presented his famous talk I believe in miracles¸ an intimate exhibition on his relationship with photography. “It’s a bit difficult to put everything in perspective,” she comments in a conversation with Culto regarding the exercise of projecting part of his career (and his life) from him in a presentation.

Dua Lipa. Future Nostalgia. 2021.David LaChapelle

“I try to have a sketch of what I want to do, but the truth is that I try, as much as possible, to inspire young people in their careers and in their decisions when creating art, and tell what inspires me. My greatest calling is to talk to people interested in photography and tell them a little about my story, my struggles and the difficulties I have had to face in order to live a life as a creative”, he affirms.

An intention that, in turn, has to do with his purpose as an artist: “My goal is to try to reach people through an image without having to physically meet them or use words. The idea is to try to touch a person through photography, or through art. That is what is complete, when that person connects with the image.”

McQueen Burndown House (David LaChapelle)
McQueen Burndown House (David LaChapelle)

Its thick catalog is full of references. One of them – and one that runs through several of his most famous works – is religion., quoted by LaChapelle in a contemporary key and through icons of popular culture. Part of this concern for the spiritual comes from whom he recognizes as his main mentor.

Michelangelo is my favorite artist. For me, he is the most important teacher. He influenced me deeply since he was young. Andy Warhol was very influential for me, for example, but Michelangelo was something else entirely.”. An example of this fascination is the painting named Courtney Love: Pieta, a montage where the widow of Kurt Cobain figure holding the nude body of the musician in a direct reference to Mary and Jesus in the painting The piety.

Courtney Love: Pieta (David LaChapelle)
Courtney Love: Pieta (David LaChapelle)

Spirituality plays a fundamental role in LaChapelle’s life. “I pray and try to listen to God, particularly when making important decisions in my life. I usually pray and the answers appear, they really do”, he confesses. Under his perspective, both society and art have moved away from that.

“In the art world, and in historical terms, religious art used to dominate the scene. And now, when you see religious art, it is not really compatible (with our times), since people have moved away from the church, from God. I think there is going to be a great apostasy where most people are going to turn away from God, and this is particularly the case in the art world. Isn’t it ironic that something funny is being made of the blasphemous”, he expresses. Thus, the exercise of merging the imaginary of faith with pop figures (which “attract the attention of young people”), becomes a disruptive act.

Kanye West: Passion of the Christ (David LaChapelle)
Kanye West: Passion of the Christ (David LaChapelle)

In that context, LaChapelle also expresses his concern regarding the themes that dominate the world of entertainment today.. “As an artist, you have a choice: you can create more darkness and confusion in the world, but it is also possible to create clarity and beauty. Today, in music and film, things are going dark. I’m not generalizing, but let’s think about it: how many series about criminals, serial killers can we watch. There are at least six series about Ted Bundy and we don’t have any about Stevie Wonder. What does this mean for our society? That we are so obsessed about death, murders… A significant percentage of today’s young people have seen hardcore pornography online, we have to study what impact this has.”

David Bowie: Self Preservation. 1995. David LaChapelle.

“Everything talks so much about homicides, about death, like American Horror Story. There’s a Jeffrey Dahmer series in the works… Do we really need more? When are we going to be satisfied with so much darkness and death? We are in a new dark age right now”. Times that, for the photographer, are comparable to the time of the Roman Empire.

Art has always been a mirror of what society is interested in. When we study history, we listen to the art that is created. We forget the names of the politicians, but we remember the artists. What will they say about us in the future? Are they going to say that we are sitting in the coliseum? People are going to have a very similar impression to the one we had of the Romans”, he says.

The photographer affirms that, in such a state of things, it is much more difficult to provide clarifying elements: “Art is a struggle. It is easy to create darkness in contrast to light. It’s much easier to try to do bloody and violent things, but creating something illuminating is much more of a challenge.”.

However, he has his position more than clear: “I am on the other side. I want to bring laughter, light, life, spirituality. Those are the elements that I want to present and put them in a context of popular culture. I am not a fan of all the people I have photographed, but I am going to photograph them because they are part of the world of popular culture. But we need the Stevie Wonders of the world. We need the Beatles again, these people who aspire to greatness. Now you can’t name a single rock band that the whole world knows and that brings us all together like the Beatles did in the ’60s. We have the choice to create as artists, and we have to make the right choice. We have to stay within the light”.

David LaChapelle.  Photograph by Robert Wright (The New York Times)
David LaChapelle. Photograph by Robert Wright (The New York Times)

David LaChapelle: “There are at least six series about Ted Bundy and none about Stevie Wonder. What does this mean for our society? – Third