There’s no mistaking a photo taken by David LaChapelle. The Connecticut-born photographer has had a distinct vision since even the very start of his career—hence why Andy Warhol recruited him to work at Interview at just 17. If you weren’t familiar with it already, there’s no better place to start than the massive, career-defining retrospective on view at Fotografiska in New York City. Then again, there’s a good chance you’ve known LaChapelle’s work for years: Who could forget, say, his portrait of Tupac Shakur taking a bubble bath or a naked Lil’ Kim covered in Louis Vuitton logos?
But celebrity has long been just a fraction of LaChapelle’s oeuvre. That’s more apparent than ever at Fotografiska (which, coincidentally, is just a block away from the gallery that played host to his first exhibition in 1984). Which brings us to the other key aspect of the exhibition: While LaChapelle is first and foremost associated with his pop culture imagery, there’s always been a political and/or religious bent to LaChapelle’s photography. And how could there not be, seeing as he was pursuing activism as a member of ACT UP at the same time that he was establishing his vision? Here, LaChapelle reflects on his beginnings and how those early ’80s days have shaped his legacy.
Tell me about some of your earliest photographs, when you were coming up in the 1980s.
Those pictures came out of the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I knew about it when there were just 46 cases in the world, and at the time, they didn’t call it AIDS. The very first time I heard about it, it was called the 4H Club: homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs, and heroin users. The invitation to my first show had a photograph of my boyfriend. It opened on March 29 of 1984, and he died [of AIDS] in April. I was 21 and he was 24. People died so fast, and it was really terrorizing—suddenly, everyone was getting it. These pictures were a reaction to that—where does the soul go? I got very close to god, as I think happens when you’re facing death. I thought I had it, because my boyfriend had it, so why would I not? I went to a doctor in the West Village once after my boyfriend died. Her whole clinic—the patients and staff—had been dying. I really wanted to know [if I had AIDS], but it was going to take two weeks. And when I went back, she had lost eight more patients and staff.
The anxiety of not knowing must have been brutal.
I was so completely sure I was positive, so I braced myself for that. She said, “When we find out you’re positive, we’re going to put you on AZT.” I didn’t tell her, but I wasn’t going to take it. I was already vegetarian, since I was 11, and I just started to go running every day. I probably had the healthiest kidneys because I didn’t drink. I didn’t do drugs; I didn’t smoke. It’s so crazy, because I didn’t know how long I had. I had it in my head that I wouldn’t live past 24, because that’s when [his boyfriend] Louis died. You had all this pain, and not only that; you’re fearful that you’re next, so you can’t even properly mourn people. I was even angry. This is my first real boyfriend, first live-in boyfriend—how could you do this? That was before I knew that god wasn’t the harbinger of sickness and death. My faith really grew at that time. I started doing these pictures with angels and wanting to photograph things that were seemingly unphotographable. It took me a year to find a guy who could make wings.
He put metal rods down the back, attached to a leather belt, like the kind you use at the gym, and shoulder straps—but with the wires all covered up. So it looked like [the wearer] had muscles—like they could lift off the ground. He wanted $2,500, but I had $2,000 in the bank when I said I needed four pairs for a triptych. I used every dime I had. Because an angel with wings, a man with wings, a woman with wings? For me, there’s no better visual representation of the soul.
The one you’re showing me [pictured above] almost looks like a painting.
I would paint on the negatives with photographic dye in the darkroom. I spent all night in the darkroom—I call it the Dark Ages. [Laughs.]
You’d known Warhol for about five years before you photographed him in front of a backdrop of books—and, upon closer inspection, sandwiched between two Bibles—in 1986. Since he passed, the extent to which he was also religious has come to light. Did you two ever talk about faith?
We never talked about it. I knew that Alfredo, who was his right hand, and Benjamin Lui, would walk him to church on Sundays, and they told me that nobody knew that at that time. So with [regards to] that photo, I put the two Bibles that were on the shelf in his office framing his head. I didn’t even really tell him what I was doing, but [Warhol’s business manager] Fred Hughes yelled at me for touching his shelf. [Laughs.]
What do you think your work would look like if the AIDS crisis hadn’t happened?
I was very spiritual anyway, so that didn’t push me into being spiritual; I was just more committed and prayed more. And there are so many things that happened at that time that I can’t explain, which were miraculous: premonitions and things that are really difficult to articulate. When you try to explain them to someone, it’s very flat; it always sounds like a coincidence. And that happened to me with AIDS. I went to a Robert Mapplethorpe opening with his brother, Eddie, and the whole day, I felt strange. It was the strangest day walking around New York, where I felt like I was seeing things from a different perspective. It’s hard to explain, but I was seeing stuff. Then someone made a joke about Hitler, and, you know, my mom was in an extermination camp—she was almost killed by the Nazis.
And you really still were sober at the time?
Oh, I didn’t drink or anything until I was 35 years old, when I suddenly decided it would be a good idea to try drugs. I mean, I tried everything. Like I said, I was a straight arrow—straight edge? [Laughs.] Whatever they call it, back then, it was just a rule that I didn’t drink.
Everything about your photos looks so perfect. The early ones look Photoshopped because they’re so pristine. Are there any in particular where it was actually a mess behind the scenes?
There was always chaos. But I actually focus better when there’s a lot of distraction. I used to want to be a painter when I was a kid, and used to draw in the woods, but when I started taking photographs, I became addicted to that adrenaline rush. I took a photography course, dropped out of high school, and got accepted to this art school based on my paintings and drawings. They let me in halfway through the year and my parents didn’t have to pay for it. Photography always scared me because I thought it was going to be about the numbers and mixing chemicals and I’m really bad at math and science. But it’s so simple. I would stay in the darkroom so long that I could taste the chemicals the next day. When I was at Interview, I spent 23 hours straight printing when I was on deadline for photos of the Beastie Boys from the music issue.
No way—didn’t you have to use the bathroom?
Oh yeah, I peed and stuff—I would just pee in the drain. There are a lot of sinks in the darkroom.