By Published on .

Most Popular
Open your legs a little wider, please," David LaChapelle says to Alan Cummings. Cummings, who is dangling from a swing against a hot pink background wearing a corset, black satin panties, fishnets, absurdly high-heeled boots and matching pink nipple-paint, is appearing on Broadway in Cabaret, but right now he's being photographed in LaChapelle's downtown New York studio for an upcoming issue of Interview. Makeup artist Patti Wilson's tiny Chihuahua puppy is the secondary center of attention, trotting around the set, being cuddled and coddled by the staff when suddenly LaChapelle sets his sights on the canine. Inspiration strikes. Before you can say "Yo quiero Taco Bell," the Chihuahua is added to the shot. "Stay there," the photographer commands as the pup wanders off again. An assistant picks up the dog and plops it back in the set. The pooch, blinded by the lights, will have none of it. After a few more tries, LaChapelle turns around with an impish grin and whispers, out of Wilson's earshot, "Why don't we stick it on a glue trap?" Meanwhile the Chihuahua, nervous from all the manhandling, has a wee accident, leaving a yellow puddle on the hot pink floor. In the end the dog winds up on a leash and the puddle remains, adding yet another special touch to the shot.

Although he is best known for colorful, garish and generally whacked-out photos like these, LaChapelle, 35, is no one-trick pony. Raised in Connecticut and North Carolina, and educated at New York's School of Visual Arts, he landed his first photography job in the early '80s after Andy Warhol took a shine to him (the two met in Studio 54, where LaChapelle was a busboy). Forget 'signature' candy colors: Back then, the Young Turk worked almost exclusively in black and white. When the job calls for it, he is still entirely capable of taking a straightforward photo. In fact, he has done more covers for Conde Nast Traveler than any other photographer. And despite his bad-boy image, LaChapelle commands respect from the often skittish corporate types at R.J. Reynolds and Citibank who've hired him to shoot their ads.

His work for the second wave of the post-Joe Camel campaign got lots of press, both good and bad, as cigarette ads tend to do. LaChapelle has no qualms about helping to promote tobacco. On the contrary. Mentioning cigarettes prompts him to do a little cheer. "Cigarettes! Yeah! Go smoke!" he yells as he executes a couple of jackknife jumps worthy of a Texas cheerleader. He plants himself back on the ground and quips, "I don't smoke, but I'm trying to start. I even bought a Camel T-shirt to wear to the shoot. I love Joe Camel! Cigarette advertising is renegade -- it's like a war going on and I'm really glad to be on the tobacco company's side."

Now he's on a roll: "I'm not living in a fascist society. I will not have 900-pound burger-swallowing-McNugget-munching idiots telling me I can't fucking smoke a cigarette! People are killing themselves with McNuggets as we speak. My parents met picking tobacco. I owe my life to tobacco."

The tobacco people are pretty happy with LaChapelle, too. Says Fran Creighton, VP-marketing for Camel, "When we were developing the new campaign last year, the concept of being irreverent, bold, imaginative and clever fit the style of David LaChapelle. For example, when he shot the photo for 'The Farmer's Daughter,' he added the chicken, which led to the part in the warning box about animal nudity."

"There's nothing I wouldn't do," says LaChapelle, reveling in the politically incorrect mercenariness of it all. "Except maybe a snuff film." And no job is too small. Really. "I think it's great when anyone calls. There is never a little assignment -- you can make it great and it'll take on a life of its own. And as long as I show the shoe, or make that image work with the tagline they've written, I'm doing my job."

It's a job he does best when he can run riot with the bizarre attention to detail that makes his work so distinct. "Most times [clients] come here because they want my ideas, they want the details," he says. "A lot of photography today has lack of thought and details. When you put those little things in, people hunger for them. That's what makes the pictures memorable, the little nuances."

There are plenty of nuances, some not so little, in Lachapelle's new print campaign for Candie's, featuring singers performing to bizarre audiences: Brandy with punked-out octogenarians; Shania Twain surrounded by babies; Lil' Kim and some stern-faced nuns; and Lisa Loeb wearing only her Candie's and a guitar, playing to a naked audience at the "Nudith Fair."

A little less freakish, but more shocking to most, is the now legendary Diesel "VJ Day" ad, featuring French-kissing sailors. Originally a full-color editorial shot that was deemed too risque, LaChapelle converted it to black and white, and the result is one of his favorite photos.

Is there a difference between his editorial work (for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Details, among others) and his equally varied advertising oeuvre? "Editorial is a laboratory. That's where I do all my experimenting," LaChapelle explains. "With advertising you're dealing with big corporations, and they can't afford to let someone experiment on their tab." But he readily admits that the end result usually turns out entirely different from the sketch originally presented to him. No matter; there seem to be very few complaints. When Weiss Whitten Stagliano came to him with the idea for the "Boot Licker" shot in the Bass Ale campaign, they suggested black leather. But he felt the whole picture would turn out ugly. "I thought it would look beautiful to see the orange balanced against blue. The blue vinyl is much prettier than black leather and not so cliche."

"David's got a very unique style, kitschy but sexy," says Tiger Savage, who worked with LaChapelle on the Salon Selectives shampoo and conditioner campaign while at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London (she's now a CD at Leagas Delaney, London). "He's pretty campy and very much in touch with his feminine side." In fact, Savage quips, "He was the next best thing to hiring a woman."

That some see a gay aesthetic in his work doesn't bother LaChapelle one way or the other, and he doesn't believe it limits his appeal to mass audiences. His work isn't so much homoerotic as sexy and fun, he believes. Sure, there's his fascination with rockets and other phallic images. Then again, his 1996 book, LaChapelle Land, boasts more breasts than the average issue of Playboy. "Boobs are great," LaChapelle remarks happily. "I love boobs."

He is no longer content with just shooting stills. Videos and commercials provide another sort of canvas. "It was easy to make the transition to videos, because I always work with elaborate sets," he says. "It's just bigger with the addition of movement and narrative." LaChapelle's directorial debut was a parody of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? for MTV's Raw, starring grotesque Madonna and Courtney Love impersonators. He's also directed a short film for Giorgio Armani entitled "Salvation," starring Jennifer Tilly as a woman in desperate need of an Armani makeover. His video for the Dandy Warhols "Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," showcases dancing hypodermic needles and a buxom-to-the-point-of-bursting game show hostess. Speaking of zaftig females, a soon-to-air Comedy Central spot for a televised Friars' Roast of Drew Carey features Rubenesque campfire girls cooking the comedian on a spit. "His visual style is so dynamic and layered that it's absolutely vibrant," gushes Maria Danar, Comedy Central's VP-on-air promos, who worked with LaChapelle on a few Sprite commercials while a senior producer at Lowe & Partners/SMS. "His approach is so fresh, and he has so many ideas, it separates him from traditional directors."

The Sprite work includes an intentionally cheesy take-off on the Doublemint Twins, featuring maniacal "Tripplicious" triplets. LaChapelle's recent Citibank commercial with Elton John is less of a creative triumph -- depending on which version you watch. The director's cut is pure LaChapelle, with flying fairy women in metallic hot pants and halter tops, tons of confetti, and Sir Elton on top of a stack of money. The air versions had all the fun and wildness surgically removed. LaChapelle shrugs it off. "I just wanted to experience doing something epic and grand. I knew what they were going to do, but you still get the idea of the spectacle."

One thing that will send LaChapelle into a raging hissy fit is the 'appropriation' of another's work. "So this Meredith Brooks person gets on the phone and says [in mock Valley girl accent]: 'Guess what -- that "Bitch" video? I just wanted to let you know I saw your photograph and was completely inspired and based my whole video around it!' I was like, what the fuck?! That's my picture! That's the David Duchovny picture from The Face in '95! It's like, you are a bitch, why didn't you call me to direct it?"

He breaks into a song and dance based on "Bitch," then stops to fume again. "There is this whole thing about plagiarism when it comes to the verbal," he seethes. "But with the visual everybody thinks that plagiarism doesn't exist. It exists! People in Los Angeles are in bubbles. They think it's all about looking through magazines and copying it. I feel sorry for them. But I'm not bitter, because I've gotten my due."

LaChapelle has gotten his due, all right. He was hailed in 1995 as both French Photo magazine and American Photo magazine's Best New Photographer of the Year; in '96, the International Center of Photography honored him with the Applied Photography of the Year Award. Earlier this year, at Life magazine's inaugural Eisie awards, named for Alfred Eisenstaedt, he took home two trophies.

So what other worlds can he conquer? LaChapelle is collecting visuals for a sequel to LaChapelle Land (last year's recipient of the Art Directors Club award for best book design). Published by Callaway Editions and Simon & Shuster, and featuring a Tadanori Yokoo silk-screen cover, it's a stunning collection of the photographer's favorite photos. The books are a labor of love, with all of LaChapelle's proceeds going to charities, including God's Love We Deliver, an organization that brings hot meals to AIDS patients.

He's also written his first feature film, which he hopes to start shooting later this fall. That step is not much of a stretch for a photographer with his supersaturated visual signature. "My pictures are begging to tell a story -- there is a narrative thread running through them," he insists. "I'm not interested in doing a film that is just bombastic images. We have music videos for that."

He will also make his acting debut in the Donal Ward film The Suburbans, starring Ben Stiller. LaChapelle plays a director helping an '80s rock band make a comeback. Ward was looking for someone to play a video director, and their mutual publicist put them together.

Despite such attention-grabbing projects, LaChapelle insists he's not looking for celebrity status: "I'm like the caterer. I'm just doing my job." He also emphasizes that his true passion remains his editorial and advertising work. "This is my photography. I love advertising. This is what I believe in. I don't have a body of work that is my personal work -- like black and white photographs

In this article: