“I believe that artwork is only finished once it is met by the viewer.”- David LaChapelle
Last week, in the middle of a torrential downpour, the Stern Arts, Culture and Cuisine Club sojourned to Fotografiska New York, located in the heart of one of New York’s most quaint and idyllic neighbourhoods, Gramercy Park. A branch of Sweden’s famed centre for contemporary photography, Fotografiska is a haven for culture and creativity, with thought provoking exhibits that inspire one to break out the mould, bare their soul and pour it on paper. Walking into the foyer, one is whisked away to a world of glamour and high culture. There is almost a sense of reverence in the hubbub, as visitors mill around, sipping wine or coffee. To highlight just how elite this space is – the building, Church Missions House, was the very same building that Anna Sorokin, better known as Anna Delvey, claimed to have leased, before her delusional world came crashing down.
Classy and chic, the space sets the tone for the exhibit it currently houses – David LaChapelle’s Make BELIEVE. A showcase of LaChapelle’s life works spanning an illustrious career of 40 years, it is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the city, as well as Fotografiska’s first museum-wide exhibition. The church-like ambience of the museum provides the perfect setting for the surreal, pop photography exhibit. which is allegorical and introspective, through which LaChapelle raises issues on religion, spirituality and sexuality.
Born in Connecticut, David LaChapelle began his career as a painter before moving to New York City at the age of 17. After his first photography show, he was hired to work at Interview Magazine by Andy Warhol, whose influence can be seen heavily in his work. In the decades since, LaChapelle has become one of the most published photographers throughout the world. He is known for editorial fashion photography, incorporating the usage of bold colours, pop imagery and surrealism, while also incorporating social issues in his imagery. A significant part of work heavily invokes 21st Century Americana, particularly life in suburbs (Recollections in America, 2006) and consumerism (Live Your Best Life, 2002).
Perhaps the most recurring theme in LaChappelle’s work is Christianity and religion. As a son of an immigrant and as a gay man, LaChapelle belonged to a minority group that was ostracised by mainstream society and the religious faith he sought solace in, yet he never turned against his God. Rather, he used his work to showcase his view of religion, and sought to increase representation of queer people and people of colour in stills depicting stories from the Bible, e.g. as in Angels Saints Martyrs (1984), Jesus in my Homeboy (2003) and Mary Magdalene (2019).
In addition to the themes of his work, what’s fascinating about LaChapelle’s photography is his minimal use of post-processing. The surrealism in his images is not achieved through the usage of digital manipulation, but by intricately creating and staging props that add another layer of nuance to his work; an example can be seen in Land Scape (2013), a series depicting the battle between nature and civilisation, in which the subjects (e.g. oil refineries), are made with everyday waste objects that are symbolic of the destruction these images portray. LaChapelle avoids all forms of editing as much as possible, and has in fact developed an analogue technique by hand-painting the negatives to obtain a vibrant pop of color before processing the film.
Of late, the shift in tone of LaChapelle’s photography has been more melancholic and reflective. His work is reflective of all the turmoil in the world – war, climate change, political strife, mental illness – seismic shifts that have lent an almost existential and nihilistic sense to his work. Two of his exhibits are particularly reflective of this – House at the End of the World (2005) and Gas (2012). However, his most recent series, Revelations (2020), was shot in the height of the pandemic yet has an optimistic tone to it – humanity in the face of doom. This is the area where LaChapelle shines, creating moments of human connection in an increasingly grim world, as he seeks answer to his perennial question – “where does the soul go?” This is a question which LaChapelle will continue to explore in his works, and through him, so will art lovers.
If you’re interested in photography, David LaChappelle, or just want to experience an incredible museum, be sure to check out Fotografiska.