Out of Africa: David LaChapelle's strange visions of a continent

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David LaChapelle made his name with mash-ups of trashy glitz, Old Masters and videos of Angelina Jolie, Courtney Love and Madonna. But on the eve of his first seriously political show in the UK, he tells Fiona Sturges that he has put commercialism behind him

Of the artists and photographers working today, they don't come more in your face, more unapologetically trashy, more instantly recognisable than David LaChapelle. The self-anointed "Fellini of photography" is known as a bold recorder of our times, an artist who fuses the perceived glamour of contemporary celebrity with the physicality and complex compositions of the Italian Renaissance artists. Full of sly humour, his photographs both celebrate and subvert the notion of fame. With their staged artificiality and surrealist flourishes, some teeter in the brink of tastelessness while others deliberately turn your stomach.

Among his muses have been the model and actress Pamela Anderson who, under his direction, was photographed in bikini and stilettos wrestling with a bloodied, obese woman dressed as a pig, and the surgically-upholstered transsexual model Amanda Lepore, whom LaChapelle re-cast as Andy Warhol's Marilyn.

His photographs, whether celebrity portraits or pictures of anonymous Americans, are defined by his singular style: garish lighting, kaleidoscopic colours and elaborate compositions awash with symbolism. His pictures seem to glow from within, making everything around them seem shadowy and dull by comparison. Eyes shine, teeth glisten, skin shimmers. Extraordinary in their detail, his pictures leave nothing to the imagination and they are unequivocal about their meaning.

Not for LaChapelle the conceptual obfuscation of his artist contemporaries. He prefers direct communication with his audience, making clear statements about wealth, celebrity and the fine line between commodification and prostitution.

He has said of his portraits: "I would always try to define that person within the portrait, flattering or not, to capture them. If that celebrity were to die, this would be the image that summed them up."

Such images would include Sophie Dahl in a bath of baked beans; Naomi Campbell in a bikini astride a giant chocolate bunny; Courtney Love, bruised, naked and clawing around in the dirt; Angelina Jolie having her breasts nibbled by a horse; Kanye West wearing a crown of thorns; Marilyn Manson as a lollipop lady; Paris Hilton crouched on the floor, naked except for the leather bindings that render her immobile. LaChapelle's statement may smack of hubris, though he's not far wrong. These are images that, once they are seen, remain emblazoned on your consciousness.

Still, his detractors have accused him of style over substance, worse still of hypocrisy. LaChapelle may mock the cult of celebrity but he has been welcomed into its inner circle and has created the images that have immortalised its biggest stars.

His music videos have similarly bolstered the mythology of assorted pop icons from Britney Spears to Elton John, the latter for whom he has worked with pretty much consistently for the last ten years in some of the most expensive stage productions ever seen. His video for Christina Aguilera's single "Dirrty" single-handedly obliterated her saccharine girl-next-door image, replacing it with that of sexual dynamo through a film that depicted her in the midst of a post-apocalyptic orgy.

Accusations of misogyny have also been levelled at LaChapelle, who invariably arranges for his female models to wear as little as possible, preferably with a breast or two on display. Often they are posed in passive sexual positions. Some complain that the nudity and porno-chic imagery is gratuitous though, of course, his defenders call it kitsch.

In recent years, however, LaChapelle has seemed, on the surface at least, to develop a conscience. That's not to say he has mellowed – his pieces remain just as startling in terms of content and style – though a clear departure has been made from his trademark preoccupations of popular culture and materialism and into the realms of the social and political.

Perhaps the biggest change is in the work that he now chooses not to do. In 2005, following the release of his film debut Rize, a life-affirming and hugely successful documentary about krumping, the rubber-limbed freestyle dance craze sweeping the South Central area of Los Angeles, LaChapelle resolved that there would be no more fashion shoots, no celebrity portraits, no corporate promos (LaChapelle has shot commercial advertising campaigns for the likes of Lexus, Motorola, HBO and H&M). And, following a falling out with Madonna over the video to her single "Hung Up", there would be no more music videos.

"I quit on the set," he tells me. "Every time I worked with her it was such a miserable experience. We had had a meeting beforehand and agreed on what we were going to do, and then we went on set and she just started yelling at me. There was so much tension and stress I just walked off and didn't go back. But the truth is that I have to thank Madonna for helping me to make a decision. Throughout my career I have had this false notion that I have had to do everything I was asked to do, but I decided that now was the time to stop, to take a break. All the signs, from the success of the film to how unhappy I was on fashion and video shoots, were telling me to stop."

LaChapelle retreated to his home in a Hawaii, a place out in the woods with no phone line or electricity. He read books, went on walks and revelled in the silence. Then, after a few months, his agent tracked him down and informed him that a gallery in Berlin wanted to put on a show of his work.

Early in his career, LaChapelle would put on one-man shows of his photographs around New York loft-spaces. though there was little interest shown back then. "My last show was in 1991; no one came. At the time you couldn't do fine art if you were a commercial artist. After that I decided that magazines would be my gallery. My goal was to photograph the people that interested me and the people who made up the world of popular culture that we lived in. I wanted to document America's obsessions and compulsions. Working for magazines pulls in big audiences. It's the difference between a pop star playing in a bar or in a big stadium, and it was exciting."

Even so, his desire to be a fine artist never went away. Recently, 15 years later, LaChapelle found himself in the novel position of being offered his own show. He returned to his Los Angeles studio and set to work on a series of projects. Among his them was the Awakened series, a collection of photographs which had fully-dressed and conspicuously non-famous people suspended in flotation tanks. In 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina, came his Deluge. He created a composition that echoed the French neo-classical painter Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, and depicted naked city-dwellers seeking refuge from a flood, clutching at telegraph poles, scrambling on to cars and clasping broken advertising hoardings for Burger King and Starbucks.

Over the past three years a revivified LaChapelle has immersed himself in a punishing schedule of new projects and worldwide exhibitions. Now, finally, his work comes to London. His new exhibition is called The Rape of Africa, named after its overwhelmingly huge, hyper-real centrepiece, a tribute to Botticelli's painting Venus and Mars.

In Botticelli's version Venus, the goddess of love, lies across from Mars, the god of war, in a meadow. Mars is unarmed and in a post-coital slumber, while Venus is awake and alert. Around them satyrs play with Mars's armour; one blows a trumpet into Mars's ear but he cannot be woken. The message is that love has conquered war. In LaChapelle's tableau, a beautifully attired and regal-looking Naomi Campbell sits across from a sleeping man who is surrounded by gold, the spoils of war. A hole blasted out of the wall behind them provides a window onto a parched land smothered in heavy machinery and devoid of plant life. The couple are flanked by children, two of whom carry machine-guns.

Here love clearly has not conquered; the ravaged backdrop, the armed children and the piles of gold point to a land and a culture destroyed by global consumerism, notably the gold and diamond industries, and war. Meanwhile Campbell, in all her exotic finery, represents the objectification of African women, by Western culture, as their homes and countries are torn apart.

On one hand The Rape of Africa is typical LaChapelle with its gaudy aesthetic and flawless, glossy style, but it is also an angry political statement. On a personal level it announces LaChapelle as no longer a celebrity snapper, but an important contemporary artist more than capable of bringing intellectual and historical weight to his art.

Reactions to the image have been largely positive, though LaChapelle notes that there have been dissenters. "One critic said that having Naomi Campbell sitting there looking beautiful wasn't an honest representation of people in Africa. I asked him: 'If it was a woman with a distended belly and open sores, would that be more profound for you?' We see those images every day, on the TV and in newspapers. I have this idea that you can use glamour and still have it represent something that matters. I believe in a visual language that should be as strong as the written word. It's following the same idea as murals where you have a series of narrative pictures. They are telling stories and communicating with people, which is always what I have set out to do."

According to Colin Wiggins, head of education at the National Gallery and the author of The Rape of Africa's exhibition catalogue, "LaChapelle is using the Western European tradition of painting to inject some historical energy into his work. You can see a fascination with Renaissance painting in the way that he uses language and imagery as a point of departure for his own emphatically contemporary pieces. Even in his fashion and celebrity work you will find objects in the background that carry meaning in the same way in the same way that paintings by Botticelli or Piero di Cosimo might."

Wiggins himself may operate in what he calls "Old Master world" but he is a huge admirer of LaChapelle. "I love his pictures because they have this repellent quality that is strangely attractive. Whether you like it or not, they draw you in."

LaChapelle's elevation of the human body into the realms of the divine also echoes the Renaissance artists. The physical perfection extolled and rendered by Michelangelo, itself derived from Greek Classicism, has been manifest in his work since the Eighties. Religious imagery is another recurring theme. Michelangelo's Pieta, an icon of Renaissance sculpture in which Jesus's body lies across the lap of his mother Mary, was memorably appropriated in LaChapelle's rendering of Courtney Love as she clutched a body resembling her husband Kurt Cobain.

The first print in a triptych in this latest exhibition entitled American Jesus: Hold me, carry me boldly, Hawaii draws on the Pieta once more. This time Jesus holds a dead Michael Jackson in his lap against a lush, Eden-like background. Jackson's white, diamante-encrusted glove lies limply on the ground beneath them. The subsequent panels find Jackson reborn as the Archangel Michael and standing with one foot triumphantly on the devil, and in the final piece beatified as a saint and modern-day martyr.

I remark to LaChapelle that presenting a magazine fashion shoot in a religious context is one thing, but portraying a figure such as Michael Jackson as a latter-day Messiah in an art gallery is asking for trouble. But he says he is impervious to criticism and revels in getting a reaction. "We live in an unshockable world. We're in a post-pornographic time. The association between photography and pornography is so close as to be barely distinguishable. The challenge for me now to make what I do relevant to our times. Just as Renaissance artists provided narratives for the era they lived in, so do I. I'm always looking beyond the surface. I've done that ever since I first picked up a camera."

LaChapelle got his first break while working at Studio 54 clearing the tables of fabulous people. He caught the attention of Andy Warhol, who hired him as a photographer on his magazine Interview. "He said to me 'Do what you want but make everyone look good'," he recalls, an edict that LaChapelle clearly took to heart.

Having made a name for himself at Interview, he started shooting for Rolling Stone, Vogue and Playboy, his pictures revealing his admiration for the likes of Salvador Dali, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Warhol. LaChapelle set up a studio in New York and employed a coterie of friends and advisers to help create the elaborate sets that have become his trademark.

One of the most profound events in LaChapelle's life was being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the early Nineties. Now he controls the condition through diet and watching out for the warning signs. There is an upside to it, he says. Out of the early stages of the manic phases come phases of non-stop creativity. "You get stuff done," he says. "Some of my best work has come from those periods."

Now he believes he is at a stage of his career where he can pick and choose what he does, and pursue his true passions without paying lip service to "uptight editors and celebrities". This year, alongside his work for galleries, LaChapelle has dipped his toes back into the waters of portraiture, having photographed Lady Gaga.

During an interview last year, Gaga told me that she wouldn't be the person she is today without having seen LaChapelle's images when she was younger. In return LaChapelle states that "she is everything a pop star should be: creative, musically brilliant, smart and funny." Certainly, she is perhaps one of the few performers in the world who can match LaChapelle in terms of wit and ostentation. But being a fine artist remains his primary focus. Gallery owners and curators may have been slow to recognise his impact on contemporary culture, but they are finally wising up. LaChapelle's photographs are now highly collectible – depending on size and edition, single prints sell at between £12,000 and £65,000.

It remains to be seen whether LaChapelle's work will ever be deemed worthy by the art establishment; reviews have so far been lukewarm. Just as it took his friend and mentor Warhol many years to be valued as a cultural icon, LaChapelle may still have to wait to get the recognition that he deserves.

But LaChapelle says he's never looked for recognition or consent. "I've never wanted to be part of an inner circle of any scene. I've always been an outsider looking to question and subvert. The art world, the fashion world, the celebrity world – they are all so limiting. I can't make people like what I do. From now on I am doing my own thing on my own terms, with or without the approval of others."

David LaChapelle: The Rape of Africa, 27 April to 23 June. Robilant & Voena, First Floor, 38 Dover Street, London W1 (robilantvoena.com/exhibitions)

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