“He’s more of a cultural voyeur than a fashion photographer.” –Isabella Blow

I. Introduction

David LaChapelle (b. 1969) is a guilty pleasure for many in the art world. One of America’s preeminent portrait photographers and a onetime disciple of Warhol, he is heir to the Pop tradition. LaChapelle’s photographs have a style all their own – marked by bright colors, fetish, spectacle, humor and sex. While some may argue that his works are pure fun, he counters that he imbues each photograph with commentary and meaning. In a process that is uniquely post-photography, he composes a piece in the way a director constructs a set, and codes each photograph with overtones and specific images to hint at a deeper meaning. The result of this pictorial choreography is a body of work that is at the same time referential and forward thinking. LaChapelle has been incredibly prolific, and his work spans a wide variety of sub-genres and subject matter. To narrow the discussion, I have chosen to focus on his portraiture and select gallery work, with the goal of proving that LaChapelle is a vehicle of post-photography principles at the vanguard of contemporary photography.

II. Photography & Post-Photography

In 1839, upon learning of the invention of photography, painter Paul Delacroche famously exclaimed, “from now on, painting is dead!” (Johansson) With the birth of a new medium came the advent of a new paragone for modern times. For much of the twentieth century, art theorists widely acknowledged that painting was the superior art form. Walter Benjamin coined the analogy that a magician is to a surgeon as a painter is to a photographer. While nothing limits the creative possibilities of magicians and painters, surgeons and photographers must work with what is already offered through nature. (Benjamin) In his book, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, Pierre Bourdieu applies both class and aesthetic analysis to demonstrate the inferiority of the photography as practiced by different sectors of the French middle class. This term “middle-brow” thus refers both to the middle class and to mediocrity, two institutions that the exclusive contemporary art world desperately seeks to avoid. From a social perspective, Bourdieu argues that photography is cheap and technically simple to learn. Ruled by the limits of what can be photographed – the real – photography’s main function among the middle class is to record “souvenirs” of festive events and leisure. He damns the medium as valuing this pictorial record over process or composition. Further, the aesthetics of photography value realism, objectivity and information over distortion, abstraction or expression. In other arts, the understanding of taste and composition is passed down through formal education and tradition, but photography lacks this authority. (Vromen)
These limited, mimetic aspects of photography, as described by Bourdieu, are what proponents of post-photography seek to avoid. By contrast, post-photography theorists value the idea of adding artistry to a photography, in making an image versus taking a picture. (Irvine) In his article, The New Image, Troels Degn Johansson observes that with digital technology, the post-photographic image becomes “more iconic than indexical”.
A still from James Cameron’s Avatar, celebrated as a “game changer” for the unprecedented scope of its computer-generated effects.
A still from James Cameron’s Avatar, celebrated as a “game changer” for the unprecedented scope of its computer-generated effects.
Thus, the “digital” photograph is more related to the expressive, abstract characteristics of painting than the middle-brow “chemical” photograph. Moreover, digital technology allows artists to create photograph-like images without the physical technology of photography. (Johansson) In parallel with Delacroche’s exclamation that photography would kill painting, will digital effects kill chemical photography?

The response to this question may lie in Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the “four phases of an image”, taken from his seminal work Simulacra and Simulation. First, an image is the reflection of a basic reality. This phase is what artists attempted to achieve in ancient Greece and Rome, and later during the Renaissance. The reflective nature of this first phase is also what Bourdieu so reviles in middle-brow photography. Second, the image masks and perverts a basic reality, with a phase began with the Mannerists and continued through contemporary art. Thirdly, the image marks the absence of a basic reality, as in the absence of depth in Fauve or Cubist paintings. Finally, at the apex of this progression, the image bears no relation to any reality whatever; it is its own pure simulacrum. Neither true nor false, the simulacrum is its own phantasmagoria. (Baudrillard) Simulacra, which do not “not have an internal relationship to a model but only an external relationship build only on the ‘model of the Other from which there flows an internalized dissemblance’” are what post-photographers aim at. (Ozturk) While chemical technology had limited artists to what they could find in reality, the manipulative possibilities of digitalization allow them to explore all sorts of hyper real imagery. An artist following post-photography ideals will construct a photograph, instead of looking for a subject in nature, drawing from realistic imagery and also creating her or her own effects through digital technology.

The lynchpin of the post-photography argument is that chemical photographs, limited to reality, are uncoded and raw. However, these sorts of images, be they constructed through photographs or other media, may never have existed. In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, Mikhail Bakhtin notes that every utterance is a response to the series of utterances and experiences that came before it, and as such every utterance affirms and relies upon others.
Disneyworld, Baudrillard’s preferred example of a simulacrum.
Disneyworld, Baudrillard’s preferred example of a simulacrum.
Images are coded in the same way, imbued with “dialogic overtones” that influence the way a word or a picture is understood. (Bakhtin) Further, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin observes that every image has an “aura”, wherein a work of art is inseparable from its tradition, where it is in space and time now and where it has been since its creation. For example, Timothy O’Sullivan was commissioned to travel through the American West and photo document what he found in the wilderness. While many of the images he created look much like the landscape that can be seen today, they are still founded with the same sense of adventure and of the frontier that so captivated audiences back east in the mid-19th century. Further, Goran Sonesson argues that “one could not identify the possible indexical character of a picture if it was not for a more fundamental similarity between the sign and the object, that is, an iconic sign relation.” (Johansson) It seems that while digital technology can lend more abstract, expressive qualities to a photograph, no work of art is without dialogic references. However, the aim of such intentional composition of a post-photographic image is the opportunity to leverage these references and images to create a highly evocative work.

III. LaChapelle's Portraiture

With this discussion of dilogism and the hyper real in mind, David LaChapelle could be the heir to the post-photography throne. His stylized portraits look at first like pure simulacra, rejecting reality all together. Indeed, with their flashy imagery, bright colors and sex appeal, his photographs are meant to exaggerate, to create spectacle and incur fetish. More than anything else, LaChapelle has profited from scopophilia.
"Liv Tyler", 2001
"Liv Tyler", 2001
He admits that his photographs can be an escape from the horrors of the world, and aims to make them “more beautiful, brighter, funnier” than what he finds in the world around him. (David LaChapelle Studios) He enjoys composing “crazy scenes”, as it is “much more fun to create the experience.” (David LaChapelle Studios) In this way, his work is the manifestation of the goals of post-photography theorists, in that he intentionally constructs an image in order to achieve an overall effect that exceeds what he might be able to find while looking through nature. His work is the antithesis of the “point-and-shoot” camerawork that Bourdieu so reviles. On the other hand, he also notes that most of his images are done without special effects, claiming that he only uses digital technology for “retouching.”
(David LaChapelle Studios) Nonetheless, the crux of the issue is that he does create his images – nothing he puts together could ever be found in nature. This "making of" video demonstrates the extent to which he works to assemble his photographs - the process seems more cinemgratographic than photographic. He notes that he had worked on the featured photograph for three years. This timeline poses an interesting paradox: Bourdieu worried that chemical photography valued process over product, yet for LaChapelle's work, process and product are indivisible. Further, LaChapelle understands the power of dialogic overtones and coded imagery. It was through this work in magazines that LaChapelle learned “how to communicate… how to get someone’s attention and layer it so that once you get someone’s attention there’s something there if you care to find it. It’s not hidden, it’s apparent if you give it a little time.” (Made)
LaChapelle got his start at Interview magazine in 1984 under the tutelage of Andy Warhol, and from there, he launched a hugely successful career photographing the world’s largest pop stars and celebrities for major magazines. He reflects that at this time, “magazines became [his] gallery. If people ripped out the picture and put it on their fridge, that was [his] museum.” (Made) While Benjamin lambastes photography for diluting the arts due to its ease of reproduction, LaChapelle aims for the democratization of fame and photographs. (Benjamin) For magazines like Rolling Stone, Vogue, New York Magazine, and others, he photographed figures with such stature as Madonna, Amanda Lepore, Eminem, Lance Armstrong, Pamela Anderson, Li'l Kim, Uma Thurman, Elizabeth Taylor, David Beckham, Paris Hilton, Jeff Koons, Leonardo diCaprio, Hillary Clinton, Muhammad Ali, and Britney Spears
It was through this portraiture that he developed his iconic style.
"Paris Hilton", 2004
"Paris Hilton", 2004
With their loud color and polished finish, his photographs scream sex and dare us not to look. He cites first glimpse of one of Warhol’s gold Marilyn’s as his primary influence, noting that the experience of viewing the image “felt like something that was adult, like something [he] wasn’t supposed to be looking at, there was something so attractive about this painting.” (Charlie Rose) Whereas Benjamin warns that a photograph cannot completely capture the aura of an image, or even threatens to set up a false aura through the “spell of personality,” LaChapelle wants his photographs to capture his sitters’ personalities and quirks. His answer to this tension between stifling and exaggerating the real is his distinct hyper real portraiture. These photographs are not just a study of the subjects’ face and environment; LaChapelle places his sitters in a situation, and through this interaction, allows the spirit of the person to come out. In an interview with CBS news, he remarked that he doesn’t “wanna reinvent people,I wanna take the iconic pictures of them that say who they are. If there has to be one picture that they show in 20 years to describe the person, to narrate who they were and illustrate that, I'd like it to be one of my photos. That's the goal.”
The apex of this period in his oeuvre was a 2004 portrait of Paris Hilton. In an interview with Mary Barone of ArtNet, LaChapelle confirms that his period of celebrity portraiture in magazines ended “with Paris Hilton. [He] loved the superficial emptiness, the blonde hair, the extensions, the contact lenses, the spray-on tan… she’s so perfect." Indeed, Paris Hilton in 2004 was the pinnacle of all that is Pop in pop culture – vibrant, sexy, colorful, superficial. Celebrity personified, she gained notoriety through a sex tape and proceeded to stretch out her fifteen minutes through carefully choreographed club appearances and shopping trips. In terms of fetishism and spectatorship, this image of Hilton dares us not to stare. She directly engages the viewer, looking at us straight-on. Her pose is provocative, and much like her celebrity, there is no semiotic code suggesting a deeper meaning other than sex! flashy! pop! This overwhelming artificiality is a message in itself.

IV. Post Portraiture

His twenty-year love affair with magazine commissions ended, however, after developing the documentary Rize about dancers in some of Los Angeles’ most impoverished neighborhoods. This film was a complete departure for LaChapelle from subject matter to style. Though set in a neighborhood that sits mere miles from the glitz of Hollywood, the community he represented was a socioeconomic world away. Additionally, he filmed the scenes without any sort of pictorial distortion; in fact, the film begins with a disclaimer attesting to the fact that none of the dance scenes were sped up. (Made) After working for three years to represent a community as accurately as possible without any stylization, and through giving a voice to Los Angeles’ least fortunate neighborhoods, he acquired a deep need to “make things that are special, that mean something to people.” (Made) He wanted to comment on, rather than document, the rampant consumerism and objectification of the body that so drives contemporary celebrity culture. From an artistic standpoint, he felt he had made his magazine photographs as layered as he could, but since his employers were positioned towards specific target markets, there was only so much he could say. He was leveraging the post-photographic capabilities of his medium, but without composing images that communicated anything worth telling. So at the peak of his career, after David LaChapelle: Heaven and Hell, his third book, was published he left the lucrative, commercial arts world for fine arts. He fled Los Angeles – quite abruptly, walking off the set of Madonna’s 2005 Hung Up music video – to become a “farmer” in Hawaii. Not only does he now live on a farm but he also began focusing on farming ideas and images to grow into a more intellectually nourishing product. (Made)

V. Gallery Series

Since 2005, LaChapelle has been quite prolific in creating works intended for gallery space. He confronts a litany of different subjects, such as gender, race, sexuality, class, consumerism, religion – it seems that all while he was working on portraits, he was stifling a deep desire for social commentary. While I could go on for miles and cover each of these sub-genres within his work, I’m choosing to focus on a few of his works that feature appropriation of religious imagery. Religious iconography is some of the most dialogic, semiotic imagery across the canon of art history, of which LaChapelle is clearly a student. Further, Old Master religious paintings are some of the best-known works of art in popular culture. Without conducting a major survey, I’m pretty sure that there are many more people who could identify The Last Supper than Guernica. LaChapelle employs this deeply coded visual language to construct photographs that evoke his message in a setting that many can understand. The result is a post-photographic amalgam of his typical Pop style and new commentary.


In one of his first showings after his exodus from Los Angeles, LaChapelle put together Awakened in 2007. The show referenced “diverse sources such as the Renaissance, art history, cinema, The Bible, pornography, and the new globalized pop culture [and in doing so,] fashioned a deeply personal and epoch-defining visual language that holds up a mirror to our times.” (Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 2007) It was made up of thirty of his photographs, to serve as “an introduction to his years of photographic social commentary.” (Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 2007)
"The Deluge", 2007
"The Deluge", 2007
This juxtaposition of new and old works lent a narrative quality to his oeuvre, and evoked a before-and-after character that worked in parallel with many of the pieces we was showing. Most notable was The Deluge, a photograph of epic proportions – 23 feet long – that was inspired by Michelango’s The Deluge fresco from the Sistine Chapel. Just as Michelangelo’s depiction of the Flood tells the story of a sinful and hedonistic people who are wiped out by God, LaChapelle presents the destruction of the sinful and the salvation of the good in his own times. He set it in Las Vegas, as it is “Sin City. It’s where all the obsessions and compulsions are, so naturally that would be where The Flood, the Great Flood would come.” (CNN) He uses the logos of Caesar’s Palace, Gucci and Burger King, well-known and highly-coded images in contemporary culture, to offer what he believes is sinful in today’s society: excess, rampant consumerism, brand obsession.
Further, the image and its reliance on Michelangelo allowed LaChapelle to confront issues of reality and objectification. In the evolution of Western art, Michelangelo is known for idealizing the nude figure and the idea that “physical perfection equals divinity.” (Barone) LaChapelle, on the other hand, found his subjects on Craigslist, and many of the bodies he ended up featuring are far from ideal. Whereas much of the Los Angeles royalty he had photographed previous makes a living off of physical perfection – to a hyperreal, surgical extreme – these subjects are “real.” They’re real in the sense that their lives are not constructed by a team of public relations professionals and they real in the sense that they have natural-looking bodies. With the process of recruiting and documenting these figures,
Michelangelo, "The Deluge", 1508-9
Michelangelo, "The Deluge", 1508-9
LaChapelle learned that a “nude in a photograph just means something completely different than a nude in a painting.” (Barone) This distinction works in parallel with the difference between Bourdieu’s middle-brow photography and post-photography. It seems that the figures LaChapelle worked with for the Deluge had more in common with the former than the latter. On the other hand, while the bodies he chooses hold on to a sense of the real, the setting does not. The photograph was set on stage that looks as intricate as a movie set, the figures were shot in a series of thirteen poses that were later combined digitally, and assistants control everything from the lighting, to the smoke, to the ripples in the water. (Benvenuto) Together, this combination of the real and the hyper real is a perfect example of LaChapelle’s unique blend of mimesis and post-photography.
Michelangelo’s The Deluge

American Jesus

With The Rape of Africa, LaChapelle appropriates another classic from the canon of Western art and applies it to his own society and perspective. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars shows the clothed goddess of love, post coital, after having vanquished the naked god of love with her lovemaking and minimized his weapons into playthings. LaChapelle’s version turns the original on its head by suggesting that the nude Venus (Africa) is defeated by Mars (Europe). (Los Angeles Times, 2009)
"Rape of Africa", 2007
"Rape of Africa", 2007
In a 4x10 composition that mimics the spectacle of the Baroque, LaChapelle dots the scene with Bakhtin’s “dialogic overtones” to reveal his intended message. His cherubs’ playthings are hardly minimized; by contrast, they are automatic weapons. To reveal Mars’s – or the Western world’s – consumerism and opulence, the god rests atop a pile of extravagant spoils, including Damien Hirst’s famous diamond-encrusted skull in the lower right-hand corner. This photograph’s “aura”, to use Benjamin’s terminology, relies both on its contemporaneous setting and its dialogic reference to Botticelli. Without an understanding of the Renaissance painting and how LaChapelle inverted its dynamic, the viewer would not catch the poignancy of Venus’s impotence. Despite centuries of supposed progress, including the rise of feminism in the 20th century, women are just as subjugated as they were in Botticelli’s time.
Botticelli, "Mars and Venus", 1483
Botticelli, "Mars and Venus", 1483

By choosing to represent Naomi Campbell, goddess of the fashion industry, as the goddess of love, LaChapelle argues further that the ideal to which women are now expected to aspire is based on a hyper real fabrication. Naomi Campbell is certainly beautiful, but fashion publications notoriously retouch much of what they publish, sending a simulacrum of a woman into households. With this discussion, LaChapelle rebels against the industry that built his career. In forcing the viewers to gaze at Naomi Campbell’s naked body, he reminds them that they similarly create fetish out of the images of women in magazines and music videos.

The American Jesus series also includes a trilogy of photographs featuring the life of Michael Jackson, taken in 2009 shortly before the pop icon’s death. Appropriating imagery from Christian traditions, he sets up a dialogue between
"Archangel Michael: And no message could have been any clearer", 2009
"Archangel Michael: And no message could have been any clearer", 2009
sins and “exhalted spiritual living.” The fact that there are three images suggests not only the Trinity but also triptychs, a common devotional object. Additionally, each photograph is set in the wilderness of the Hawaiian landscape. LaChapelle thus removes Jackson from the stage setting in which most people would recognize him. This absence of a basic reality in the simulacrum of Jackson’s pop identity is Baudrillard’s third phase of the image. (Myers) First in the series, Archangel Michael: And no message could have been any clearer, presents Jackson as a pop martyr, after having gone from the most famous person in the world to the most reviled. He stands atop a demon, having conquered sin and evil, with the Archangel Michael’s attributive sword at his feet. A serpent, perhaps one of the most recognizable images in Western art, coils itself around the demon’s leg.
"American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly"; 2009
"American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly"; 2009

Second in the series, American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly, speaks to how American pop culture that had jettisoned Jackson from pop royalty. In a composition reminiscent of a pieta, Jackson is held by an idealized, muscular Jesus figure. This dialogic reference, in combination with the photograph’s title, perhaps suggests that Jackson loves the market that had abandoned him, just as Christ still loved the people who sent him to his death. With this photograph, LaChapelle draws the parallel that Christ died for Man’s sins, while Jackson dedicated his life to entertainment. (In a macabre fulfillment of photographic prophesy, Jackson’s death did indeed become the spectacle of the summer of 2009.) With a lifeless arm, Jackson points to a silver glittery glove – a dialogic reference to his days as the King of Pop. In 1984, while filming a Pepsi commercial, his hair caught on fire in front of 3,000 fans. This explicit mortality
directly contrasted with the hyper real conception of “Michael Jackson: singer, dancer, entertainer” that had been transmitted through mass media – a simulacrum of a man, never seen out of character. In order to preserve this conception, he later staged a retelling of the accident.
"The Beatification: I'll Never Let You Part for You're Always in My Heart", 2009
"The Beatification: I'll Never Let You Part for You're Always in My Heart", 2009
While carried out of the set on a stretcher he raises one hand, covered in a single, silver glove that tells his fans that the figure they expect is still intact. Correspondingly, LaChapelle’s photography has much in common with Michael Jackson’s self-construction. The images that he creates are also constructions of a reality, carefully designed, set, lit and directed. He shows his subjects at the pinnacle of their identity, highlighting and exaggerating the features that make them who they are.

Finally, in The Beatification: I’ll Never Let You Part for You’re Always in My Heart, Jackson is either in Heaven or resurrected. He stands with the Virgin and holds a dove, the sign of the Holy Spirit. Beatification, or the Church’s official recognition that a person has entered into Heaven, is another dialogic reference to religious precedent. After the death of Jackson’s celebrity, he continues living in Heaven. Perhaps LaChapelle is suggesting that although Jackson is no longer a celebrated figure in American pop culture, his legend and position in the history of pop music remains, in a sort of “gone but never forgotten” sentiment. With the triology as a whole, LaChapelle offers Jackson’s life, death and afterlife in parallel with Christ’s own life, death and afterlife. Subsequently, he suggests that in contemporary American culture, our religion or overriding dogma is in our obsession with fame and celebrity. His representation of Jackson’s life thus serves both as a demonstration of and warning against the result of positioning a real person in the hyper real construction of show business. Again, LaChapelle uses his post-photography to comment on the industry that made him.

VI. Conclusion

David LaChapelle’s career has shared interesting parallels with that of his mentor, Andy Warhol, as he has transitioned from commercial to gallery work. In a style that is distinctly post-photographic, he meticulously composes an image an charges it with semiotic codes in order to create a discussion. Whether he is illuminating a subject’s personality or revealing his beliefs about the American consumerism and celebrity, his photographs are rife with meaning. While many in the elite art world write his work of as mere “fun”, his images are as semiotically coded with references as the flowers in a Dutch still life. Further, the bright opulence of his style can be seen from fashion photography to other cutting-edge contemporary artists, from the pages of Rolling Stone to Jeff Koons’ sculptures. LaChapelle is purely post-pop and post-photography, and now with his new trajectory into gallery work, he is employing his distinct method and style to perform social and political commentary - though all with his trademark sense of humor.

VII. Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Barone, Mary, “David LaChapelle”. Artnet. Accessed at http://www.artnet.fr/magazineus/features/barone/barone3-28-07.asp.

Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Baudrillard, Jean Simulacra and Simulation, 1981; English trans., 1988.

Charlie Rose, “A discussion about ‘Interview’ magazine”, November, 1999. Accessed at http://www.charlierose.com/guest/view/980.

CNN, “Icon: Into the World of David LaChapelle” Hawaii: December, 2010. Accessed at http://www.davidlachapelle.com/video/cnn/.

David LaChapelle Studios, “Portrait of a Photographer: David LaChapelle”, 1998.

Irvine, Martin “Key Issues in Modern Photography: Taking a Photograph vs. Making a Picture”, resource page for CCTP-725, Georgetown University.

Johansson, Troels Degn, The New Image: On the Temporality of Photographic Representation after Digitalization. Lehrstuhl für Multimedia-Konzepte und Anwendungen. Augsburg: 2002.

Made, “Visions of Visionaries with David LaChapelle” Germany: March, 2011. Accessed at http://www.davidlachapelle.com/video/made/.

“Making of: Deluge” dir. Frank Benvenuto, September, 2007. Accessed at http://www.davidlachapelle.com/video/making-ofdeluge/.

Myers, Holly, “David LaChapelle at David Desanctis Gallery – Turning Botticelli on his head”, The Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2009.

Ozturk, Seyda, Simulation Reloaded, Cinetext, 2003.

Tony Shafrazi Gallery, “Awakened”. Press release. February, 2007. Archive copy at www.tonyshafrazigallery.com

Vromen, Suzanne “Class Attitudes and Ambiguous Aesthetic Claims”; response to Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, Pierre Bourdieu, 1990.