A conversation with 47-year-old photographer David LaChapelle cleaves to the surreal, gratuitous, and subversive--much like a reflection of his work. But underneath the perennial trucker hat, there lies the tenderness and charm of a boy struggling to gain footing. Below, his angles on shock and success.
Jeanine Celeste Pang: You are both a photographer and a director. Which do you prefer, photographs or film?
David LaChapelle: I'm a photographer, period. I love photography, the immediacy of it. I like the craft, the idea of saying "I'm a photographer." It can be as big as you want it to be; reality is in the eye of the beholder.
JCP: Your work has been described as entertainment slapped with shock value. Thoughts?
DLC: I would rather die than be a serious artist, or a fake artist. I give you Naomi Campbell in high heels and makeup, and she's representing Africa. If you want to hate it, hate it. But I've never tried to take a shocking picture. I just want to grab your attention. We're all on twitter and cell phones. I want to grab your attention through color and beauty. But we are in an unshockable society.
JCP: You've learned from some iconic photographers, including Andy Warhol. What's the best advice received?
DLC: Do whatever you want, just make everyone look good. For me, it's easier to like more things than to dislike them; I'm not a critic in that sense. I find it easier to like more, to be more open and enjoy more things, which has given me more opportunities. The best thing I learned from Andy Warhol wasn't what he said. It was being with him in the last few years of his life and observing. The critics would write horrible things about him. You don't need to listen to people. You know who your true fans are -- you just feel it, you see it in their faces, or they'll write you letters. There's a lot of hate, but there's also a lot of love.
JCP: Define success.
DLC: Success to me is being a good person, treating people well. But, I'm a work in progress. I have my devils and demons. I've had the issue where you cheat the ones you love. I would lose my temper and things like that. It kills me, I always suffer from that because you can never take that back. It's easy to be kind, but it's also easy to be cruel. Hopefully I've grown up a little bit. But I'm not going to pretend to be someone I'm not. There are times when I'm going to fucking party, and I'm going to be true to myself.
JCP: Do you have a mantra?
DLC: Don't judge people. Everyone had a judgment about Michael Jackson, but I think Michael was a messenger and he was here to teach us. He was a friend of mine. When he was charged with pedophilia, he still lived his life with such dignity. Even when he was under the most horrible of times, he never lost it, he never freaked out. He just lived it out with dignity, and kindness, and talent.
JCP: You've shot a promo trailer for Lost. Name five people you'd want to be marooned on an island with.
DLC: I would want Michael Jackson because I love him. Walt Whitman because he's my favorite writer and poet, and he can read us poetry. We would also have spiritual guidance from him. Also, Amy Sedaris because she could make us laugh and she could cook. The fourth would be Abraham Lincoln; he could build a log cabin if we needed it and he could sort of govern everyone. I would like Abraham Lincoln to choose the last person, so I'll give him a plus one. With the exception of Mary Todd Lincoln.
JCP: If you could come back as anything else, what would you be?
DLC: A soul singer, someone who sings from the heart. Like Bette Midler, like Lady Gaga, like Mary J Blige. Or Alice Ridley. Yes, I want to come back as Alice Ridley, and I'd want my daughter to be Precious. I guess I'd want to come back as a black woman singer.
JCP: And your legacy in this lifetime?
DLC: That I tried my best.
LaChapelle's solo exhibition "American Jesus" is currently on view through September 18, 2010 at Paul Kasmin Gallery, NYC.