David LaChapelle: American Jesus

The Artist and Celebrity-Snapper Explains His New Show At Paul Kasmin

Art and fashion photographer David LaChapelle’s poppy, religious-themed work features contemporary icons in tableaux straight out of the gospels. On the occasion of his American Jesus opening at Paul Kasmin gallery in New York, we caught up with the artist to talk about Walt Whitman, Michael Jackson and that biggest celebrity of all, Jesus.
 

A lot of your work is a kind of pop-art iconography—which, I guess, makes you a modern day Raphael. These are rather biblical times aren’t they?
My mom talks about her life, as a refugee from Germany during the war, camps and things like that—people in any age find life challenging. With all the information now, you wonder if what is happening is more critical or if we’re just getting more news. Give us twenty minutes and we’ll give you the world.
 
Your series Deluge had a certain end-of-the-world bent.
Actually, if you look at the people, they are all helping each other. So it’s a hopeful situation, people extending a hand to each other. Of course everything that lives must die—everything will come to an end—and materialism is not the answer. Stocks and currency, money and gold: these things all come and go.
 
Is anything everlasting?
Walt Whitman said the teeniest sprout proves that life never dies.
 
When did you first conceive of Michael Jackson as a biblical character?
I shot Michael for the first issue of Flaunt in 1998 and we used saint candles.
 
What was the process like? Were you on set krumping or moonwalking?
You know, I’m really not going to talk about the Michael Jackson pictures, or what went into them. I shot him in 1999 for the millennium cover of Rolling Stone and that was the start of an acknowledgment that I was a supporter. But I’d rather people look at the photos and decide for themselves. We persecuted him. Every person who ever bought a tabloid or watched the news, we all contributed to his death by taking in that form of gossip.

It is definitely true that celebrities are our modern day gods and goddesses, and we build them up and tear them down.
Madonna has been torn down. Michael Jordan has been torn down. Michael Jackson was destroyed. Like no other person in our times. You have to remember that Michael Jackson was innocent. He was proved innocent in our courts. If you read the transcripts of the trial it is insanity, it should never have gone to court. We spent tens of millions of dollars to prosecute him when we don’t have money for schools in California.
 
Why is that?
Not because he was a celebrity but because he looked different. He was obsessive about privacy and it made him "other," it made him different, and he went from being the most famous, most beloved singer to the most reviled, joked about—he couldn’t open a newspaper without reading horror stories about himself.
 
Is fame the premier topic of our times?
I don’t think it is the premier topic. I don’t even have a television set—in Maui or California or New York. I don’t buy the magazines, I don’t read the newspapers. I don’t know what the world is obsessed with right now. It does seem out of balance.
 
Pop-culture is a great way in to the discussion—and Jesus is the biggest celeb of all time!
You know, I’m trying to compete with Twitter and Facebook and all the distractions of the world—constant imagery—so, of course I am going to use any tool. But don’t forget I started in galleries in the 1980s. Before that, my whole life, I was going to be an artist. I dropped out of school when I was 15 and my father came and got me and brought me to North Carolina School of the Arts. I didn’t graduate high school but I learned photography and artistry there and I continually learned for the rest of my life.
 
Is that why you kind of pulled back the curtain on some of the work in this show, to say, “look, I am an artist”?
History will decide who the artists are. Tony Shafrazi saw my sketchbook one day and he freaked out and he said, you’ve gotta show these.” And I said no, no, no. He said, “You have got to show your process.” And I said, “If I start to think about these pictures being seen it is going to influence the way I make them. I will get self-conscious. These are me playing around—watercolor sketches—to get my head around a figure, find a color palette. They are advanced doodles, nothing more.” Finally I did show them and people liked them.
 
You’ve said you want to get away from the sets and studio and get into nature. How is that going.
It’s going really well. We’ve been shooting in Maui. It is a pretty elaborate series.
 
Reading about your place there one finds the words “nudist,” “colony,” “Maui.” What else could you want?
A couple of years ago I bought this place. It was kinda dilapidated. The lady that ran it was getting on in years—a lovely woman. My parents used to have a lake cabin and I used to go there to escape New York. I would go, sort out my problems, meditate, swim naked. It was very Whitman-esque. My whole life, I dreamed of having a cabin in the woods. It was an answered prayer.

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