On September 9th, David LaChapelle unveiled “make Believe” at Fotografiska New York, marking the venue’s first museum-wide takeover by a single artist and LaChapelle’s first major headlining exhibition in North America. A retrospective walk through the photographer’s monumental career, the exhibition features more than 150 works spanning nearly four decades. It juxtaposes reality and fantasy at its core, but themes of divinity, nature, celebria, sexuality, and capitalism ebb and flow throughout “make Believe” to transform Fotografiska into the world as LaChapelle sees it. It’s a retrospective that simultaneously reflects the zeitgeist through the eyes of the artist and serves as a reminder of his undeniable influence on it.
David LaChapelle was born in Simsbury, Connecticut on March 11th, 1963. He enrolled as a painter at North Carolina School of the Arts, where he developed his signature technique of painting over his own negatives before processing the film. After moving to New York City at the age of 17 and debuting his first photography show at Gallery 303, LaChapelle was hired by Andy Warhol as an in-house photographer for Interview Magazine. Warhol’s influence on LaChapelle has been apparent ever since – Today, a LaChapelle photograph can instantly be recognized by its color-soaked saturation and explosive nods to pop culture that crank the volume up to full blast.
That trademark loudness, together with his dreamlike compositions and surrealist narratives, stretched traditional definitions of photography until the world recognized LaChapelle for a photographic language that is entirely his own. LaChapelle is, perhaps, best known for his frenzied, exuberant portraits of celebrities, and he has photographed just about everyone in the pop culture stratosphere – from Pamela Anderson to Tupac to Lady Gaga. These faces (and many more) are percolated throughout the artist’s Fotografiska retrospective, but the exhibition demands a deeper look into its religious and political tints.
Many of the artist’s earlier pieces, which are spliced between more recent ones, give attention to the Christian faith that informed his work before he became the David LaChapelle that is one of the most highly-sought celebrity photographers in the world. His years in New York coincided with the rise of AIDS, which caused the deaths of many of LaChapelle’s friends, including his first live-in boyfriend. The result, LaChapelle says, was an “urgency to create” and an even greater emphasis on his relationship with God. The existential fears and questions that the AIDS epidemic brought to gay men in the 1980s are exemplified in ethereal images depicting men as saints, angels, and martyrs (“Fly On My Sweet Angel Fly on to the Sky,” 1988), or with hearts glowing from within exposed chest cavities (“Light Within,” 1986).
This is not to say that Christianity and the divine are limited to these early shots. While they are some of the most straightforward parts of “make Believe,” religious symbolism continues to dominate much of the exhibition even as LaChapelle’s work evolves to include extremely secular themes. Often, the secular and the divine are frankensteined together: Kanye West wears a crown of thorns (“Kanye West: Passion of the Christ,” 2006), Lana Del Rey is an angel leading a gospel choir (“Lana Del Rey: Choir,” 2017), and Kim Kardashian becomes a glitter-dusted Mary Magdalene (“Mary Magdalene: Abiding Lamentation,” 2018). The irony feels more like contemplation than outright cynicism, like LaChapelle is asking, Can man ever replace God, or have our obsessions with fame and celebrity already done so?
Elsewhere, LaChapelle is more explicitly critical. Many of the political sentiments interwoven throughout “make Believe” grapple with nature’s decline at the hands of 21st-century consumerism. LaChapelle relocated to Hawaii in 2006 as something of a reset, retreating away from the celebrity circuit he had become best known for shaping. The islands are illustrious backdrops for pieces in which LaChapelle’s biblical ruminations are as prevalent as ever – in 2021’s “The Crucifiction,” Jesus is hung against a tree with leaves and flowers taking the place of blood – but in these, characteristically-vibrant shots of Hawaii serve as a reminder of industrialization’s devastating price.
Much of the post-2000s work contributes to this theme, stacking it on top of other biting interpretations of the American ideal. In 2002’s “I Buy a Big Car for Shopping,” an SUV is smashed by a giant inflatable can of Coke as its blood-soaked driver, clad in runway-ready couture, plants her stilettos in defiance with her back turned to the wreckage. The 2013 “Land Scape” series is a collection of opulent cityscapes, but rich sunsets and glittering buildings are offset by plumes of smoke bleeding into the sky, pipes jutting into surrounding water, and radioactive colors that remind us we’re looking at gorgeous depictions of the threats posed by artificiality – It looks good, and sometimes it even feels good, but it rots us from the inside.
“make Believe” is rife with these juxtapositions: the religious with the secular, the natural with the manufactured, the real with the fantastical, and the past with the present. The exhibition begins with a short film documenting the creation of 2006’s “Deluge,” LaChapelle’s subversion of the Michelangelo masterwork that adorns the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. LaChapelle narrates over a montage of behind-the-scenes shots, telling us that, at times, he has “found ways to create heaven,” and, at others, hell. The line feels like a thesis statement; a promise to turn the things we think we know about the past, about religion, about beauty, and about how human beings fit into it all, inside-out. Enter “make Believe.”
Historically, LaChapelle has been lauded for his ability to spin the grotesque and bizarre into something irresistible. For decades, his photographs have existed in their own delirious paradise that celebrates candy-coated absurdity, even when his subjects are bloody, disfigured, and blasphemous. His heavens are beautiful even as they’re offset by something horrifying, and his hells often come with a wink and the promise of a lot of fun until we’re wondering which one is hanging in front of us. “make Believe” is our chance to have a glimpse of a world where such opposing concepts are equally real, equally present, and equally significant. Like the photographs themselves, “make Believe” is a celebration, an uncompromising look in the mirror, and another stamp on David LaChapelle’s ever-growing legacy all at once.
“make Believe” is on view at Fotografiska New York through January 8th, 2023.