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Born in the late sixties, David LaChapelle lived in Hartford, Connecticut for the first nine years of his life, taking a great deal of formative inspiration from his time there. Indeed, he has also cited his mother’s attention to detail when arranging family photographs as a key inspiration for the composition of his images. The programs at Hartford’s public schools were what first opened the budding photographer’s eyes to the visual arts, and when his family moved to North Carolina, the young LaChapelle was distraught.
Faced with a great deal of bullying at school, at a time when he was just discovering his sexuality, he would flee the state at 15, eventually finding work at the legendary New York club Studio 54. However, he did return to North Carolina to enrol at the state’s School Of Arts, his first formal training, before moving back to New York City to become a photographer full-time at seventeen.
It was then that he got his first job, working for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, putting him in close contact with now-legendary figures in the art scene such as Richard Avedon, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe. Around this time, LaChapelle also had his work exhibited for the first time at the iconic 303 Gallery in 1984.
Through his work at Interview, David LaChapelle’s style of photography began to evolve to how we know it today. This involved painting the negatives by hand, which creates a far more vivid palette of color before the photographs are developed. This contributed to his popularity with commercial clients, including his controversial kissing sailors campaign for Diesel in 1995, one of the first openly queer print advertisements in history.
The vibrant colors the artist uses also led him to naturally gravitate towards directing films, particularly music videos. These ranged from the kitschy promo clips for The Dandy Warhols’ “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth” or No Doubt’s “It’s My Life” to more atmospheric, emotionally-driven spots for Moby’s “Natural Blues” and Robbie Williams’ “Advertising Space”.
David LaChapelle’s photographs have been collected in a series of much sought-after books, particularly his late-nineties works LaChapelle Land (1996) and Hotel LaChapelle (1999). He portrays his celebrity subjects in opulent, pseudo-Baroque settings and poses, such as his controversial 2006 picture of Courtney Love in the style of Michaelangelo’s Pietà, in which she is holding the lifeless body of her late husband Kurt Cobain. Indeed, this draws on his Catholic upbringing, and religious iconography has been a common theme throughout LaChapelle’s work.
This internal conflict has also inspired the way LaChapelle has lived his life, having moved from city to city in search of decadence — whether that’s New York at the height of the disco boom, London during the peak of the new romantic boom, or the ever-heady Los Angeles. In 2006, however, LaChapelle moved to a remote part of Hawaii, where he continues to live and work in his studio in the forest. Having also neglected his gallery work while in high demand as a magazine photographer and video director, it was this return to simplicity in his life which led to his resumed interest in fine art. Since then, he has been exhibiting far more prolifically in galleries worldwide, both in group shows and on his own.