Photographer David LaChapelle On Photography, Worshiping Stevie Wonder and His Early East Village Days

Observer recently caught up with the star photographer to talk about the past and his life lately.

There are two Davids in pop culture: David Chapelle, the comedian, and David LaChapelle, the world-renowned photographer Jay-Z rapped about on “All the Way Up.” Few photographers get a shout-out like that, and when you bring it up to LaChapelle—that he’s mentioned in a rap song from one of the world’s most iconic rappers—he says casually, “Oh yeah, Jay-Z. He’s a nice guy.”

A black and white photo of a man with striking cheekbones wearing a zip hoodie
David LaChapelle. Tom Wagner

LaChapelle, who got his start shooting for Andy Warhol’s Interview while working as a busboy for Studio 54, has spent more than forty years behind the lens and has come to define what has been called kitsch pop surrealism. In fact, he might just be the king of the genre. His photos tend to be arresting portraits of celebrities, elevating them to religious icons, with all due irony and symbolism. His high-gloss photo style is the epitome of modern-day glamor.

His work for a veritable arsenal of brands and magazines made his career, but the celebrity cycle got old and LaChapelle sought out an escape beyond what he’d always done to promote for LGBTQIA+ rights and AIDS awareness. Turns out escaping meant relocating to Maui, where since 2006 he has lived off-grid—a self-sustaining farmer-photographer. His most recent work showcases his spiritual side, with staged photos that draw inspiration from paradise, religious art and his tropical home.

David LaChapelle, ‘Dear Doctor, I’ve Read Your Play,’ Los Angeles, 2004. Courtesy of VISU Contemporary

Currently, LaChapelle is on what one might call a merry-go-round of retrospectives, showing everywhere from Fotografiska to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. He recently held a solo show in Rome with Deodato Gallery and is showing next in Miami at Visu Contemporary with “Happy Together,” which opens in just a few days.

Of course, for many of us, LaChapelle’s photographs of iconic celebrities from the 1990s and 2000s are his most memorable. Whether it was shooting Eminem, Britney Spears, Lil Kim or Whitney Houston, he took pop icons—long before the era of Instagram or TikTok—and contorted them into his world—long before PRs ruled over highly controlled shoots and FaceTune or Photoshop were the norm.

Observer recently chatted with David LaChapelle about his own icons, the advice he gives young photographers and his obsession with Stevie Wonder.

The newest piece in the show is Three Graces (male) (2023), which was inspired by Raphael’s master painting The Three Graces (1503-1505). What can you tell me about this piece?

It’s three men. It’s not an erotic thing or about sexuality but more about… I hate talking about my work. I hope the pictures do the talking. Some artists go on and on, but it can be hard to see what they say. If I can’t say it with the images, I have failed. When it comes to photography, it’s all about communication—good photography stops time. You have a moment with a photograph in a gallery or a museum, and you’re away from your phone. If I have that moment with you, as a photographer, I want to say something. In this time, people spend two seconds per art object in a museum. I want to hold people’s attention for longer. Today, we don’t have the luxury of time, where people are going to spend time peeling back the layers of your work. It has to have a directness.

Looking back, what are some of your favorite celebrities you’ve ever photographed and why?

I look back on it all fondly; I had a good time doing it. It was a different era—very free. It was exciting. It was also the golden age for music videos and magazines. An amazing time. There are still opportunities now, and I still do celebrity portraits and other portraits. I treat them the same.

David LaChapelle, ‘Egypt Africa,’ Las Vegas, 2003. Courtesy of VISU Contemporary

What was it like working with Travis Scott? You included a portrait of him in this show called Tears.

What is there to say about Travis Scott? He said he wanted to do something around an amusement park he used to go to in Houston and call the album Astroworld. I saw a huge, inflatable gold head and there has been so much drama with that artist and his management. I flew Amanda Lepore out from New York to be in that shoot, and they removed her from the photo and tried to blame me for it. People will believe anything. When the album came out, the art directing credit said Travis Scott… so did the concept. I did the art direction. It was unbelievable. People think art has no meaning or visuals have no meaning. If it doesn’t mean anything, what’s the point?

One of the pieces in the show is My Own Marilyn, a Warhol-esque portrait of Amanda Lepore. Can I call her one of your muses?

For sure. She’s a muse, she has inspired me over the years and she is a great friend. So many people inspire me. Everyone has something interesting about them to photograph.

David LaChapelle, ‘Archangel Uriel,’ Farmington, 1985. Courtesy of VISU Contemporary

Archangel Uriel is another piece in the show—can you tell me the story behind it?

That was done in 1985, as a response to my friends dying of AIDS. They were young; my first boyfriend died. I read everything I could about it. The disease had no name at first. It was when they had their first one hundred cases. I saw how doctors were treating people in the hospitals. The words “safe sex” were never put together to promote the idea of using a condom. I thought, what is happening to my friends in their 20s? I know they had souls, and the idea of a soul can be a winged figure. That’s where the angels came from.

You told me in 2018 that George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord was one of your favorite songs. What are you currently listening to?

I can’t stop listening to Frank Ocean’s American Wedding, which is a cover of The Eagles’ Hotel California. I am trying not to overplay it, but I tend to play a song to death until I can’t hear it anymore. I’m, like, rationing by not listening to it. [Laughs].

What artists do you wish you’d photographed but couldn’t?

That’s based on my series of artists who have passed away or are not available to photograph. It includes a look-alike of Stevie Wonder and George Harrison. I found friends who looked like each artist and put it together. Sometimes people make movies—biopics—it was similar. I found a detail and dressed them in the same way or style, so closely. It turned out so well that Stevie Wonder’s kids thought it was him. Stevie Wonder is one of the artists I look up to the most.

Why?

He has given so much to the world, and he’s such a talented musician. He said, “This isn’t coming from me, this is coming from her source.” The work is just beyond. He is the most sampled artist in hip-hop. His music is so deep, it touches on every aspect of life, from love to death to children, all of it, being free and having fun. There’s a lot of prophecy in his songwriting.

David LaChapelle, ‘Behold,’ Hawaii, 2015. Courtesy of VISU Contemporary

Do you miss living in New York?

I miss the time that I lived there, but going back now, it’s very different. The neighborhood of the East Village is no longer a village. There are so many tall buildings, over the past ten years it has gone crazy. The East Village in the 1980s was like these ruins, everyone knew each other. Even if you didn’t know someone’s name, you knew them by face, whether it was the artists or the Ukrainian lady who lived down the block. A lot of developers came, and even though the empty lots in the East Village were turned into gardens, a lot of those gardens have been turned into new buildings. It’s so crowded now. Back then, you could walk with a friend to Wall Street or the East River, and not see anyone, feel alone. I remember going to see RuPaul and Lady Bunny perform at the Pyramid Club doing this punk rock drag that was amazing. It was so creative; going out meant you were there to dance. You would see your artist friends, and you had to bring something to the party.

What advice do you have for young artists or photographers?

For me, I go by my own experience. I thought about what I could give, not what I could get. That was when I was a young kid living in the East Village. After I studied photography, I learned I loved the collaborative aspect of it. I thought, what can I put out that I want to share with people? Not what can I get from photography, but what can I give?

Happy Together” is the name of the exhibition—what does that phrase mean to you?

It’s an eclectic mix of what the gallery wanted, and I love that song by The Turtles [laughs]. So happy together…

David LaChapelle, ‘This is My House,’ New York, 1997. Courtesy of VISU Contemporary

Photographer David LaChapelle On Photography, Worshiping Stevie Wonder and His Early East Village Days