A top fashion photographer who has grown sick and tired of the consumer society? It sounds like a chef who has had enough of food. But this is the story of David LaChapelle, darling of celebrity snappers, who moved from New York to an 18 acre off-grid retreat in Maui, where his bedroom is surrounded by kava, a tranquilizing plant that can inspire vivid dreams.
Several years ago, at the top of his profession and in constant demand, he realized, “I didn’t want to keep photographing fashion and celebrities….I really just walked away at the top of that editorial photography world… it was not a place that I wanted to continue to be in. Although it was great when I was in my 20s and early 30s, I wanted something different.”
“I always used to pray for a cabin in the woods with vegetarian food and a place to make my art,” David told a reporter recently, his trucker hat twisted sideways as he reached into a gallon-sized jar of honeycomb, harvested from a nearby beehive.
So David, who designed the sets for Elton John’s :Las Vegas show, completely removed himself from the universe that he had defined for decades. He went to its antithesis: Hawaii, more specifically, a farm on the island of Maui. “I decided I had said everything I needed to say, so I moved to the farm.” The property had been a small working farm and a nudist colony, and being the only private land in the middle of a state park—proved an allure for a man known for being at the center of the scene.
He turned the land into an organic farm he dubbed Artisan Farmers. “It’s a place where people come to work as artists and farmers,” he explains, “and most of all learn about sustainability. People get re-inspired, work on the farm, and it is really relaxed….It changes the artists’ work, to be isolated in the jungle.” He invites artists and disadvantaged youths from around the globe to come and experience the farm and learn about both photography and sustainability. He also takes the opportunity to learn from them. “It’s an exchange of ideas,” he says. “They fuel my interests because I love to see what they are doing, reading, listening to. I look at their photos, their work, so it’s an exchange.”
Burnt out after two decades in the world of fashion photography, where he became famous for his surreal portraits of pop stars like Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears, the Warhol disciple called it quits, left his homes in New York and Los Angeles and purchased the former nudist colony on the Wainapanapa coast, overgrown with bramble and teeming with mosquitoes. He spent much of his first three rainy months staring up at the sky in the Italian marble bathtub he had installed outside his cabin, nestled in a jungle of ferns, dragon-fruit plants and night-blooming jasmine.
The property is protected by a virtually impenetrable wall of hau bush — an invasive, woody plant — and morning glory. The main, plantation-style house, completely solar-powered, has five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a library, a caretaker’s apartment and workshop. Wood-louvered doors recycled from an old hotel make up the sides of the home, the kitchen was fitted with local eucalyptus and the armoires, library shelves and canopy beds were made of koa wood from the Big Island. Black pebbles coat the shower floors to simulate the texture of the black-sand beach nearby.
Outside a 30,000-gallon rain catchment barrel supplies water. Goats provide milk and fertilizer and frogs were provided to catch mosquitoes. There’s a waste, vegetable and bio-diesel refinery; a Mercedes painted in pink camouflage runs on vegetable oil.
“Very few people from the mainland would put up with all that — mosquitoes, rain, solar power — but it’s unquestionably the right place for him,” says Craig Maldonado, Mr. LaChapelle’s designer and project manager who lived on the property for two years during construction and oversaw 35 employees.
The King of Pop Art has left the building.
LaChapelle spent two decades recording pop culture, mirroring it back to itself before flipping the genre on its head and taking a shot from that angle. He was one of the most coveted editorial photographers, working constantly for the likes of Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. He couldn’t get enough, always with a camera in his hand, always working, working, working, wanting to take a shot of everyone, everyone, anyone who mattered. He wanted those shots to be the definition of the subject’s life, of their celebrity, to capture the glamour in a way that no other photo could, so that in decades, in centuries, someone studying this time period could look at that one photo and know who that person was.
There are a few reminders of the celebrities Mr. LaChapelle was known for photographing. An iron gate flanked by stone columns was a gift from Courtney Love. There’s a white grand piano that Lady Gaga played when she visited earlier this year. On a recent Friday, a winged Michael Jackson impersonator, flown in from Denver, practiced his moonwalk on the cliffs. (Mr. LaChapelle, who never photographed Mr. Jackson, said he wanted to depict the singer as a martyr crucified by the media.)
From Disco Diva to thoughtful intellectual
Born and raised in Farmington, Conn., Mr. LaChapelle spent many years at the center of pop culture. Dropping out of high school, he moved to New York City and became a busboy at Studio 54. After a year in art school, he returned to New York at 18 and landed his first job with Andy Warhol at Interview Magazine. That launched him into a very successful career in commercial photography. Mr. LaChapelle shot for Vogue and Vanity Fair and directed music videos and commercials for the likes of L’Oreal and Burger King. Celebrities were drawn to his irreverent style.
But a few years ago Mr. LaChapelle felt depleted. “I love glamour, I love fashion. But when that’s the sole purpose it becomes very limiting,” he says. He struggled to find magazines with an appetite for his increasingly apocalyptic imagery. (Among his darker works: “The House At The End of The World,” a photo depicting a woman and a baby in a hurricane-ravaged neighborhood, drew criticism when it was published coincidentally around the same time of Hurricane Katrina.) At the same time, Mr. LaChapelle found himself growing disillusioned with New York, which he says “became ‘Sex in the City’ and about how many shoes you had.”
Long drawn to western Maui’s remote feel, Mr. LaChapelle found out about the nudist colony while directing a shoot for Motorola and bought the property for $1.5 million in 2006. Moving into one of the modest cabins left by the former owners, Mr. LaChapelle set his designer to work renovating the 5,200-square-foot main house. He felt he’d reached an endpoint with photography and considered becoming a farmer.
Currently there are about 10 homes for sale in the area, from a $450,000 cottage to larger estates listed for $5 million.
The next phase
When his manager Fred Torres suggested he start showing in galleries, he says Mr. LaChapelle reacted angrily. “He said, ‘Nobody wants to see me, they want to see Britney Spears,'” recalls Mr. Torres.
After his first 90 days in Hawaii, during which it rained constantly, Mr. LaChapelle called Mr. Torres and said he’d reconsidered. They flew to the Sistine Chapel the next week and set to work on his “Deluge” series — a collection of photos depicting floods in Las Vegas (the city of sin), a cathedral and a museum. “Deluge: Musuem,” a photograph of four paintings sinking in a flooded museum, fetched $139,240 at Sotheby’s London auction in June, nearly three times the November sale prices of Mr. LaChapelle’s life-sized portraits of Madonna and Ms Spears.
Living in Hawaii has infused Mr. LaChapelle’s work with a new optimism. For a photograph last month, Mr. LaChapelle’s team constructed a raft from wooden planks and rusty barrels for a photo inspired by Theodore Gericault’s 1819 painting, “The Raft of Medusa,” now hanging in the Louvre. In Mr. LaChapelle’s version, the sinners he depicted in his Las Vegas flood have cobbled together a raft and, instead of going into the storm, they’re sailing into paradise, he says.
From Noah’s Ark back to LA
“This is Noah’s ark,” he said, glancing around the great room in main house while a friend and Cirque du Soleil veteran named Jesus Villa did handstands on the kitchen counter. “It’s totally off the grid.”
“I had sort of said everything I wanted to say about popular culture,” he explains. He didn’t know when he’d come back, or if. But then, during his time away, he saw something in that mirror he had used for everyone else. He saw himself. It was a fresh angle, and, looking at it, he knew who that person was…And he couldn’t stay away for long.
“I love my studio,” he explains from his workplace in L.A. The building is filled with a slew of people there for a shoot for a gallery exhibition; models and assistants and BlackBerry-wielding PR-types are scurrying through the set. There is an energy, an aura of greatness that surrounds LaChapelle, and the models in the building feel it. They are about to be photographed by David LaChapelle. It’s a great feeling.
You can’t escape his work. It’s everywhere. It is not confined to the walls of a gallery or the pages of a magazine. He directs commercials and music videos, creates ad campaigns for some of the world’s top brands. Remember that quasi-disturbing image of Christina Aguilera with her lips tied neatly shut with black string, tears cascading down her flawless cheeks, blue eyes upturned in pain? That was LaChapelle’s for a Declare Yourself campaign. He directed a five-minute commercial for H&M, titled Romeo & Juliet. He has done campaigns for Motorola, Sky Vodka, Bebe, Phillip Morris, and more. And although the shots cross categories and defy characterization, they have one common thread: They are instantly identifiable as being taken by David LaChapelle.
This is exemplified by the Jesus is My Homeboy series, with Jesus chillin’ at a Last Supper with a whole crew of new disciples, and as mediator between police and a lady of the night. The shots seem like a snippet of a rolling scene, a frame of an ongoing movie, which is the effect LaChapelle was going for. “There is a narrative tale in the photographs,” he says. “They’re not formalist in approach, they’re much more about a story being told.”
The Homeboy series clearly tries to answer the moral question: What would Jesus do? “[The images] are based on what the second coming would look like and the idea of the sublime,” he explains. “I’ve always been intrigued by that: taking an idea that has been depicted so many times by Old Masters throughout the history of art. I wanted to do a scene in color photography in a modern and urban setting. I wanted to answer the questions: What would it look like? What would it be like? I wanted to keep the authenticity without having it become ironic.”
Rather than reserve himself for the wealthy and for the elite, LaChapelle feels that Jesus would speak with and for the people in the streets, for the less fortunate and the downtrodden.
The island proved to be a pleasant retreat for LaChapelle, but it wasn’t long before he was approached by a gallery to create a series of original art. From that isolated patch of land, returning to L.A. was like stepping back into a different world. The resulting series, Deluge, reflects that contrast. It is a modern-day retake on Michelangelo’s Deluge, Noah’s Flood in the Sistine Chapel. The series includes shots of a museum being filled up with water, a tragedy during which all the great artwork is destroyed. This is a reflection of the sheer excess that he feels pervades the art world. This was also reflected in his recent show, titled Insufficiency of all Things Attainable with a subtitle of Decadence. “I wanted to be very clear what the piece was about: excess and so much money, and so much conspicuous consumption. I don’t feel a person’s value is just their net worth.”
This ideal runs rampant through much of his recent work. Its origin can be traced back to Rize, the 2005 documentary about krumping, filmed in the streets of Los Angeles. He never had any interest in doing a documentary, but upon seeing these kids—downtrodden, less fortunate, people of the streets—who were making beautiful, dancing art, he couldn’t not do the documentary. “Rize was about some marginalized people who have no money, creating art from nothing. The true artist will find a way to create and the means to do it….The process [of creating Rize] and the end result were so full of hope,” he explains. “It had a hopeful and heroic message.” Against all odds, art will always find a way to flourish.
It was upon finishing that film, one of the best-reviewed of 2006, that LaChapelle’s whole attitude and outlook on life changed. He retreated to Hawaii and reevaluated his life, thinking about what was important.
What emerged was this new man whose artwork, rather than being the sticky, in-your-face, celebrity laden, plastic-like glitz that came out of the ’90s, offers intricate, detailed glimpses at our society as a whole, and slowly, it seems he is starting to like what he sees.
His next series will be entitled Paradise Regained. The set is under production in Hawaii, where LaChapelle feels so at home. “It is a continuation of the narrative that was in the Deluge series. It is the story of where the survivors of an old world went into the new world and were turned innocent, out there in the jungle of Hawaii.” It would appear as though art is once again reflecting real life—with some colorful distortion.
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