He was hired by Andy Warhol. He fired Madonna. He photographed Pamela Anderson and Lady Gaga and also Hillary Clinton, and made a star of the transgender apparition Amanda Lepore.
He earned millions and spent much of that on a self-financed film about an urban dance form created in the rough neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles. When the film, “Rize,” failed to find a large audience, and with David LaChapelle weary after 20 years of 14-hour days, he packed up a career that any commercial photographer might envy, and he disappeared.
“It was 2006, and the money was rolling in and I thought I was going to die,” Mr. LaChapelle, the 48-year-old photographer, said last week. He was making a brief touchdown in Manhattan on the way from Los Angeles, where he keeps a residence, to Hong Kong for an exhibition of his work. It was not just the pressure of a high-flying international career or even a tendency to recreational excesses that spooked him, Mr. LaChapelle said. It was a long-held conviction that he had AIDS.
“I never got tested, and for 15 years I just assumed I was going to die,” Mr. LaChapelle said, looking weary, his face puffed and his mood distracted as he sat for an interview at a gallery on the Upper East Side. While his doomful assertion smacked of melodrama, there was a kind of skewed logic in it, given that the artist came of age in Manhattan when the pandemic was decimating the creative community out of which he emerged.
He did not have H.I.V., as he learned when he finally was tested. (“It’s the luck of the draw, really,” he said. “I was 15 back then and in New York and having sex.”) Both that reality and a desire to restore to memory a period in the early ’80s before downtown life was tinctured by tragedy motivated him to return to the art he made when, as a high school dropout from suburban Connecticut, he first blew into town.
In New York briefly, on a rare trip away from the farm he has carved out for himself on the dozen or so acres of a defunct nudist colony he bought in a remote corner of Maui, Mr. LaChapelle was overseeing a one-man show at a Madison Avenue gallery and a separate commissioned installation that opens in the lobby of the Lever House on Park Avenue on Thursday.
With their erotic gloss, their overheated aesthetics and their slick production values, the photographs at Michelman Fine Art are recognizably the work of a man who in his editorial work for Vanity Fair, Interview, Rolling Stone and others depicted David Duchovny dressed in Lycra bondage trousers, Kanye West as Black Jesus, a turbaned Elizabeth Taylor looking like a $5 fortune teller, Eminem naked but for a well-placed prop and other stars like Tupac Shakur (wearing soap bubbles), Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga baring their souls for the camera, along with a good deal else.
At the Lever House, however, the artist has returned to techniques he employed when, at the start of his career — long before he became the go-to video director for pop music divas like Christina Aguilera — he used naïve, childlike forms like linked paper chains to make his work.
There, in a space that — during the eight years since the real-estate magnate Aby Rosen created the Lever House Art Collection to add cultural luster to his holdings — has been given over to artists like Barbara Kruger and Damien Hirst, Mr. LaChapelle has slung the chains from walls and ceiling in looping festoons.
The stapled links that at first glance look like decorations for a kiddie party on closer inspection reveal images of naked bodies, an allegory for human connection, Mr. LaChapelle said. More naked forms appear in two large circular configurations meant to replicate the stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals. Titled “Adam and Eve Swimming Under a Microscope,” those pieces evoke cell division or, more ominously, viral replication, and bring to mind the work of creators as unalike as the Indian artist Bharti Kher or the British duo Gilbert & George.
“My dream since I was a kid was to show in a gallery,” Mr. LaChapelle said. And in fact, in the ’80s, before he was taken up by the editors of Andy Warhol’s “Interview” and began formulating his over-the-top Pop photographic style, Mr. LaChapelle was affiliated with Lisa Spellman’s influential 303 Gallery, where the careers of artists like Doug Aitken and Karen Kilimnik were forged.
“I was dumped” from the gallery, Mr. LaChapelle said. “If you blew up like I did, you weren’t an artist in some people’s eyes. I was dropped like a hot potato, and I was hurt.” (When contacted by a reporter, Ms. Spellman confirmed this sequence. “We did show him,” she said through a spokeswoman. “And we dumped him.”)
To this day his detractors maintain that Mr. LaChapelle is less an artist than a commercial hack. Even the novelty of his early ornate and often cinematic photographic productions, they say, grew stale well before his self-imposed exile.
“He’s one of those artists who’s heavily entrenched in the fashion world, and that has, historically speaking, been kind of a dirty word in the fine-art and auction-house worlds,” said Joshua Holdeman, a photography specialist at Christie’s.
Others term Mr. LaChapelle’s work simple-minded or unserious, gimmicky and slick. “He has a very particular theatrical and situational way of looking at things,” said Dennis Freedman, now creative director of Barneys New York and formerly the creative director of W magazine. “For me, to be interesting, the work would have had to go a lot further and be a lot tougher.”
Even Richard Marshall, the curator of the Lever House projects, admitted to having “had the same prejudices,” before seeing the early proposals for the LaChapelle project. “My understanding of the work was just the commercial celebrity photography,” Mr. Marshall said by phone from California. “But when we got into the project, you saw that he was extending his expression in different ways, and I always find that encouraging in an artist.”
Yet there are some who insist that it was precisely with the work-for-hire that Mr. LaChapelle achieved his real contribution. “I’m well aware that there are connoisseurs of photography and art and stylish magazine editors who don’t endorse his work,” said Jeffrey Deitch, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In his last professional incarnation, as the director of the Deitch Projects gallery in New York, Mr. Deitch mounted several shows of Mr. LaChapelle’s photography.
“David exists in this new territory, in the collapse between vanguard and pop culture, and it’s a very interesting space,” he added. “Look at the pictures of Lil’ Kim or Christina Aguilera or the pictures he did of Amanda Lepore as Andy Warhol’s ‘Liz’ and you see that he’s really an important part of image making in our time.”
Oddly, even as Mr. LaChapelle was ignoring his career to tend to his organic farm in Hawaii, the market for his images, especially the allegorical ones notable for baroque, almost chrome-plated religiosity, vaulted. In recent years, prices for LaChapelle pictures have grown by unlikely exponents.
“None of that, none of the money really matters to me,” said Mr. LaChapelle, who then related a story about a prostitute he once saw interviewed on late-night TV. Asked how she faced each new day of work, and how she managed to have sexual relations with unappealing customers, the woman replied that she always tried to find some little detail, a little something to like. “I’ll focus on the shoes,” she said.
During the years when he was focusing on the shoes, Mr. LaChapelle explained, he lost himself. “I did not know how to say ‘no.’ I worked 14 months without taking a day of vacation. I was 30 pounds overweight and drinking so much. I was not nice to the people around me, and I was even worse to myself.”
Mr. LaChapelle’s drive and intensity on set and off have contributed to a reputation for nearly maniacal perfectionism he does little to dispel. “David is oddly delicate, so highly strung, so highly involved in his work,” said Daphne Guinness, the socialite, fashion fixture and frequent model for the photographer and a woman whose abstracted femininity puts her oddly in line with other LaChapelle muses like Pamela Anderson and Ms. Lepore.
“On a shoot in Ireland we were shooting for 72 hours without a break, and I had a bleeding eye by the end,” Ms. Guinness said. “David has done that to me quite a few times. I’ve been in a tank of water going up and down for 11 hours. He’s got it in his mind, whatever it is, and you know he’s going to get there by the end.”
Unless, that is, he does not.
When, in the middle of a telephone call from Madonna, the singer began haranguing him about a video the two were planning, Mr. LaChapelle suddenly took the mobile phone he was holding away from his ear and snapped it shut.
“My agent was shocked,” he said. “ ‘Did you just hang up on Madonna?’ It was a pivotal moment in my life, because it was the first time I said I don’t want to do this anymore.”
It was liberating, he added, “to think that I didn’t have to work for pop stars or magazines anymore, and that I would never have to shoot the latest video by Britney Spears again.”
Now when people call asking Mr. LaChapelle for a portrait of Snooki, he has a ready answer. And yet there is reason to hope he will change his mind. David LaChapelle and Snooki: could anything be more brilliantly, perversely Pop?
By GUY TREBAY