David LaChapelle: In search of God after a life of excesses

The American artist has opened a major retrospective in New York featuring photography with religious overtones

David LaChapelle's religion-tinged portraits of Kim Kardashian / Mary Magdalene and Kanye West / Jesus Christ.
David LaChapelle's religion-tinged portraits of Kim Kardashian / Mary Magdalene and Kanye West / Jesus Christ.David LaChapelle (Fotografiska New York)

Acclaimed and harshly criticized in equal measure, David LaChapelle is an essential photographer. Hiring him when he was just 17 to work at Interview magazine, Andy Warhol was able to see the genius behind the apprentice. Many years later, LaChapelle’s overflowing imagery is capable of transporting the beholder to a new world, where fantasy and reality vibrantly mix, triggering all manner of emotions. His photographs are extremely saturated, hyper-realistic, kitschy and humorous, featuring allusions to the Bible and pornography. His work has been described as “a Las Vegas Botticelli” or “the Fellini of photography.” Some consider his work pure sensationalism, while others argue that it reflects the values of contemporary society and pop culture. New York’s Fotografiska Museum has kicked off its fall season with Make Believe, the largest retrospective yet of the 59-year-old Connecticut photographer’s work, running through January 8.

The exhibition includes a selection of 150 works spanning 40 years of LaChapelle’s career and featuring many celebrity portraits: Angelina Jolie in a state of ecstasy, Michael Jackson as an archangel, Amanda Lepore, Tupac Shakur and the final portrait of Warhol, among others.

But what stands out most about the exhibition are the strong religious overtones. LaChapelle has eschewed his more commercial past in recent years, moving away from the world of fashion to take more artistic photographs. “I stopped believing this idea that happiness comes with the next purchase. Materialism just got to be too much... I think that’s what happens when you try to replace this idea of a higher power, or God; if you just take it away you have an emptiness, a vacuum, and people fill it with material things,” he said in a 2018 interview with Sleek Magazine.

The artist, who lost his first boyfriend to HIV/AIDS, has acknowledged on several occasions that faith has helped him deal with various situations throughout his life. In 2003, he began his project Jesus is my Homeboy, a series of six photographs through which he imagines what Jesus would be like if he existed in today’s society. Thus, we see the Messiah surrounded by gang members in settings where drug trafficking, robberies and prostitution seem to be taking place. Through his imagery, LaChapelle is spreading the message that, if Jesus was among us today, he would be communing with the marginalized and non-judgmentally providing those who needed it with the opportunity to reconsider their path.

'Jesus is my homeboy: Anointing' by David LaChapelle (2003).
'Jesus is my homeboy: Anointing' by David LaChapelle (2003).Studio LaChapelle

In 2006, LaChapelle swapped New York for Hawaii. He found the closest thing to an earthly Eden on the island of Maui and took refuge in a remote village seeking an escape from stress. He later bought a house there and he has his own sustainable farm. After losing friends to excessive lifestyles and drug addiction, he believes that the decision saved his life. The theme of his photographs began to revolve around redemption and hope, with Renaissance touches inspired by Michelangelo. As he told CNN: “What does the soul look like? Is there heaven?” With Good News, in 2017, he played with the concept of turning the human being into a deity. “I feel a responsibility to create images that can uplift and serve humanity,” he said at the opening of Make Believe at Fotografiska. Nature and climate change awareness also have a heavier presence, using photography to invite the viewer to consider their responsibility concerning the beauty that surrounds them.

Even so, LaChapelle has not abandoned the provocative, which he now mixes with a mystical veneer. His portraits of Kim Kardashian as Mary Magdalene and Kanye West as Jesus Christ both exemplify his new religious experience.

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