David LaChappelle on religion, celebrity and his largest US exhibition to date

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As his exhibition opens at Fotografiska New York, David LaChappelle reflects on the influence of spirituality throughout his life and work

The 1980s was a devastating time for David LaChapelle. As the AIDS crisis ravaged New York city, the photographer began to develop a sense of existential despair. In response, he took to photographing those closest to him – many of whom were directly affected by the epidemic – drawing on his religious background to express his feelings of mourning.

The resulting images, characterising his friends as saints, martys and angels, marked the beginning of a diverse 40-year career, which would see the photographer’s hyper-realistic and subversive style celebrated across the worlds of art, music and fashion.

Now returning to where it all began, LaChapelle’s work will soon be on display at Fotografiska New York, as part of his largest US exhibition to date. Opening 09 September, Make Believe will feature more than 150 works, including rare and never-seen pieces.

© David LaChappelle.
© David LaChappelle.

The exhibition will be made up of five themes: environment, gender identity, body image, and societal ideals of both beauty and religion. This final subject focuses on LaChapelle’s earlier works, and a key part of his youth. “For centuries, religion was not taboo and it was very much part of the fabric of art and culture,” he explains. “…any opportunity to incorporate prayer and positivity into my life, and for that matter in my work, is a good thing.”

Religion, as with each of the show’s themes, will exist within an overarching thread of art-historical references and among layered explorations around the construct of celebrity. “From the mediaeval era to the renaissance and beyond, kings, popes, royal families, and religious churches have supported the arts through commissions,” says LaChappelle.

“This tradition has intrigued me, and that is why many of my own religious works may include people that make up that world today. I make these works with sincerity, and if someone like Michael Jackson or Kim Kardashian can help bring attention and focus to that spiritual visual and feeling, all the better.”

© David LaChappelle.
© David LaChappelle.

“With the many challenges in the world now, I find myself reflecting in the same way I did as a young man, when I made spiritual-based work in response to losing so many close friends during the AIDS crisis”

© David LaChappelle.

Despite his focus on religion, it is his images of celebrities for which LaChapelle is best known. Make Believe presents iconic images including those of Andy Warhol, David Bowie and Madonna. Plus, the show includes a never-before exhibited  large-scale collage installation of 14 such images.

“Although I have had the honour of capturing hundreds of known figures throughout the decades, [for this installation] I chose a mix of figures that represent celebrity over three decades,” LaChappelle explains. “They are displayed as wheatpasted posters on plywood – much like you would see on a city street. The posters are torn down and replaced with newer posters, much in the same way fame works.”

Another of the exhibition’s highlights will be a large-scale triptych, which will encapsulate multiple aspects of LaChapelle’s core practice: religion, existentialism and art historical references. Titled Deluge (2006) the photographer describes the work, which is inspired by Michelangelo’s 1512 painting of the same namel, as “a criticism of the consumer race, the decline of such universal values as kindness and empathy, and the growing attachment to material goods”. 

Each of these works will serve as a celebration not just of LaChappelle’s success, but of his technical approach to photography, which includes hand-painted negatives and the splicing of analogue film. They will also provide an interplay with Fotografiska’s church–like interior, with Make Believe becoming the first single-artist exhibition to fill each of the neo-Gothic building’s six floors.

The space will offer an appropriate setting for the photographer, who has, in recent years, returned to and revitalised his early interests in religious themes and iconography. “With the many challenges in the world now, I find myself reflecting in the same way I did as a young man, when I made spiritual-based work in response to losing so many close friends during the AIDS crisis,” LaChappelle says. “I am not exclusively making works that depict religion though, as all parts of life and the ideas of our world interest me, but I really enjoy creating and making something that can edify and hopefully inspire a viewer.”

David LaChapelle: Make Believe is on show at Fotografiska, New York, from 09 September 2022 until 09 January 2023.