Few photographers have captured fashion and celebrity with as much airbrushed excess as David LaChapelle. His over-the-top portraits—spanning Pamela Anderson, Amanda Lepore and Madonna to Alexander McQueen, Isabella Blow and Elton John—are icons of 1980s and ‘90s decadence. So when we met up with the American photographer in Beijing, where he was preparing for an exhibition of his work at the Today Art Museum (June 2010), we expected someone a bit flashy and, well, frivolous. Instead, we got deferential and, well, down-to-earth. Maui, to be exact…
Nowadays, you’re focusing less on magazine and commercial work and more on museum and gallery shows. So you’re an artist now?
I’m just a photographer. I started in galleries, spent 20 years working in magazines and then came back to galleries. So it’s like coming full circle. For me, that 20-year period in magazines was really to grow up and mature and also to learn how to communicate. I wasn’t ready, in 1984, when I was first showing in galleries. As a kid, I didn’t have enough to say.
What do you think of other fashion types, like Karl Lagerfeld and Hedi Slimane, who’ve taken up photography and dabbled in fine art?
Is that what they’re doing? [Laughs.] I didn’t know. I knew they were taking pictures. You know, that’s why I like to just say I’m a photographer, because I like the idea of being a craftsperson, of having a trade. I’d rather be simple than, you know, get into what could be misconstrued as pretentious.
You know how your work has been described: satirical, shocking, etc. But how would you define it?
For me, it’s content-driven, you know? It’s always been about content. There was always a subtext that I was playing with, this other narrative. It was never just about the face value, even if it was just making a joke or a statement or something. That’s why the older photographs are holding up, why they’re being looked at as sort of documenting 15 years of America’s obsessions, compulsions, the age of decadence we were living in.
You recently moved from Los Angeles and New York to Maui, and I hear you’re now “anti-capitalist and anti-commodity.”
No, I’m not anti anything. I just feel that when everything becomes about consuming, when the promise is that happiness is going to come with your next purchase, then you’re in a decadent society. And after decadence, we all know what happens: the fall. That’s what happened in Rome.
So you’ve been more like Nero playing the violin, a passive observer more than an active participant?
Well, I was definitely participating. You know, for me there is just nothing more beautiful than humanity and adornment. I love all those things, the make-up and beautiful women and glamour, the beautiful men and bodies and sensuality and romanticism. But I’d always make fun of it—you know, the girl snorting diamonds [as in a 1997 image of Amanda Lepore]. That was the paradox. I was working for these magazines, selling clothing and selling celebrity, and yet I was also commenting on this religious obsession with consuming, this illusion.
And now you’ve left all that for Maui. You have an eco-compound there, right?
Well, it was that way when I bought it. It was a nudist colony and it was off the grid because the area is so remote. So I just upgraded the solar and biodiesel, planted bigger gardens and more fruit trees. It’s more sustainable because we grow all our own food: goats for milk, bees for honey, lots of fruits and vegetables.
Yeah. I live very simply. I’ve always been that way. People think I live in like fun fur. Shit, I don’t know what they think. I always get brought to like a Philippe Starck hotel for lunch, whatever city I go to. Never fails. But that’s understandable, I guess.
Does it piss you off when people confuse you with Dave Chappelle?
[Laughs.] Once I was on the Today Show and Matt Lauer came in and was like, Where’s Dave Chappelle? And when I moved to Hawaii, I live in a very small town, and everyone was waiting for this black comedian to show up. So yeah, it happens.
This is your first time in China. Impressions?
I feel like I’m back in time, in New York like six years ago: cranes everywhere, buildings being built everywhere and everyone just super optimistic and buying things and happy and really into fashion. It’s like Sex and the City. It’s sort of nostalgic.