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How gay artist David LaChapelle changed the face of pop culture

By Will Stroude

This articel first appeared in Attitude issue 287, September 2017

Even if you don’t know his name, you absolutely know the work of photographer David LaChapelle. Britney Spears in a bra, hugging Tinky Winky? LaChapelle. Christina Aguilera’s Dirrty video? LaChapelle. The cover of Mariah Carey’s Rainbow? You guessed it, also LaChapelle. He even photographed Elton John for the cover of Attitude in 2001.

No one has captured the artifice of celebrity as brilliantly as LaChapelle. There are few A-listers he hasn’t convinced to get naked in the name of art: Eminem, Naomi and Lil’ Kim have all done it. Madonna favoured him during her Ray of Light era and he’s a long-time collaborator of Gwen Stefani and Marilyn Manson while trans icon Amanda Lepore and Pamela Anderson are among his favourite muses.

Following the homophobic bullying he received at home in North Carolina, a 15-year-old LaChapelle ran away to New York and found employment at the legendary nightclub Studio 54. Eventually he was hired as a photographer by Andy Warhol.

The excess and the decadence of Studio 54 are evident in LaChapelle’s epic tableaux. Not since the Renaissance have frames been so fully crowded, tiny details and in-jokes giddily pulling focus. Take, for example, his now legendary Sailors Kissing portrait for Diesel. It was the first mainstream advert to feature two men kissing and was released in 1995 at the height of the US “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that made life difficult for gay people in America’s armed forces.

Drawing on a palette of hot magentas, turquoise sky blues and banana yellows, LaChapelle’s work is often labelled “hyper-realist.” In art terms, this makes little sense as the whole point of hyper-realism is that paintings look as real as photographs (which these, well, are).

But philosophically, LaChapelle’s portraits are hyper-realist in that they deliberately blur, distort or enhance reality. He specialises in Desperate Housewives-style suburban dystopias and Baz Luhrmann-esque concrete jungles.

In a 1998 series for Rolling Stone magazine, he captured Madonna — peak ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ cultural appropriation phase — in among a colourful fantasy “ghetto,” almost obscured by diverse extras. The same creative was deployed for the Aguilera and Lil’ Kim collaboration ‘Can’t Hold Us Down’ in 2003 and Amy Winehouse’s ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ in 2007.

The years immediately following the release of the Hotel LaChapelle collection in 1999 and ‘Dirrty’ in 2002, saw the photographer’s most productive period.

But after turning his attention to film with Krumped in 2004, LaChapelle scaled back his output and moved to Hawaii in a sort of semi-retirement. He does however, still shoot when the mood takes him. Last year he teamed up with Britney again for the original ‘Make Me…’ video.

However, his version was abandoned, apparently deemed “too racy.” Various clips, however — featuring male pole dancers and, erm, leopards — can be found on YouTube. Check them out. Purely as cultural research, obvs.

Read more from Juno Dawson’s Culture Club in the November issue of Attitude. Buy in printsubscribe or download. Follow Juno on Twitter @junodawson.