In the eyes of David LaChapelle, Lady Gaga is a nude bubble goddess presiding over a pink-tinted orgy. Kanye West is Jesus Christ resurrected only to wear the crown of thorns once again. And Pamela Anderson is glittery garbage spilling out onto the street next to a trashcan that bears the word “fame.” His non-celebrity work is equally surreal: oil refineries are beautiful cityscapes, gas stations are beacons in the jungle and the apocalypse is set in Las Vegas (which perhaps is less surreal and more likely).
For more than three decades, the photographer’s candy-colored visions have presented pop culture at its most maximal and majestic in work for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Interview. Now he has compiled these images into two books that are the last in a five-part series he’d been releasing since the mid-Nineties. The tomes, Lost + Found, Part I and Good News, Part II, focus on work he’s done over the last decade – after he returned to photography after a self-imposed exile in Hawaii – alongside some of his earliest works from the Eighties, including the last portraits taken of Andy Warhol. In addition to his conceptual studio work, the volumes contain eye-popping images of Miley Cyrus, Tupac Shakur, Keith Richards, David Bowie, Whitney Houston and countless others.
With both of the books in front of him in the noisy bar of a downtown Manhattan boutique hotel, the photographer, 54, marvels that they even exist at all. “I got so obsessed with making them,” he says, speaking quietly yet confidently. He looks relaxed: He’s dressed down in a blue hoodie and jeans, and big, chunky ring that says “love” sits on his right pinky. “I stopped taking care of myself,” he says. “I stopped exercising, going to the gym, swimming. I was dreaming about the books, waking up and working on them. So right now, I’m just restoring the balance in my life. It was supposed to take four months, and it took two years and nine months for editing.”
Part of the reason the books overwhelmed him is because he paid special attention to how he arranged his work. “A lot of people look at photo books and go back and forth, all over the place,” he says. “They start in the middle and skim around. These are meant to be read from the beginning in a linear way, and they’re stories that I tried to tell with images without words.” The first book, with its bright celebrity portraits represent the world at large, he explains. “It’s like an illuminating manuscript for the time we live in, in my eyes,” he says with a laugh. “And the second book is the possibility of what could be.”
The books are particularly special to him since they signify a comeback of sorts. In the mid 2000s, after his movie Rize failed to reach a large audience, he felt burned out on the grind of photography and retreated to Maui where he refocused his lens on farming. An out-of-the-blue call from a gallery asking for new works reinvigorated him, leading to his second act.
So how does he feel now that they’re complete? “Bittersweet,” he says, likening the feeling to postpartum depression. And now that they’re done, he’s not quite sure what he wants to do with his work – or his life, for that matter. “I don’t have a big laid-out map or plan,” he says with a laugh. “We’ll see what happens.”
What do you feel the first book, Lost + Found, says about the modern world?
It’s the people that make up our world and the temporary impermanence of things. In my mind, it all came down to the Industrial Revolution and climate, which I think is the issue of our day. The pictures of the factories are neither good nor bad in the photos; gas stations are sort of the temples we all worship at. No matter what religion we are, all over the world we go to gas station. And that led to the oil refineries. We haven’t progressed spiritually or morally since the Industrial Revolution but we progressed with technology. The things that have allowed us to have all that we have right now at this moment are also the things that put us into extinction if we keep going. Now we have to readdress that.
Do you feel that’s the focus of the second book, Good News?
That goes more into the apocalypse. I did the photos of the deluge and the great flood of Moses, which I reinterpreted as the flood of the future taking place in Vegas, 10 years ago. And then I asked myself, what would paradise hereafter – this idea of mortality or nirvana, heaven – look like? I spent the last decade imagining that and trying to figure out how to photograph it without it looking like anything else. This came about after I’d gone on a retreat, living in Hawaii. So the rainforest became a backdrop for paradise.
What did you take from your period of retirement in the mid 2000s?
It lasted only six months before I got the call, “Would you show in galleries?” I thought I was done with photography. Life had other plans. I had another decade left to work, and that was exciting. That’s where these photos came from – the last decade when I thought I was done.
Why did you think you were done?
I just didn’t think I could work for galleries or work for magazines. If no one’s gonna see your pictures, it’s like singing to yourself in the shower. When I got the call for a gallery, it was really exciting, because I got to use everything I’d learned in magazines about communication. And your eye grows, so I felt I was doing better photography than when I left galleries in the Eighties. Magazines were like a finishing school for me for 20 years [laughs].
There are a lot of photos you shot for us in the books. What do you like about shooting for Rolling Stone?
I like working with musicians, number one [laughs]. Rolling Stone’s a milestone for a photographer to work for. To get a cover is a very important thing for a photographer. The last one I did was Paris Jackson [in February 2017].
It was Rolling Stone that got me back in to doing magazine work, ’cause when I started work for galleries again 10 years ago, I wasn’t interested in pop stars. I felt like I had done that. But my friend told me about this singer – “You have to come see this girl, she’s amazing” – and it turned out to be Gaga. We hit it off and became friends, and she came to Maui and asked if I would shoot her for Rolling Stone. So I did her first cover. I said, “This is fun. I can do galleries and occasionally photograph people who are interesting.”
What do you remember about that Gaga shoot with the bubbles?
It was a blast. I always have lots of setups in one day, and we shot a bunch of different things. She was up for anything, and it’s always exciting to see someone right in the beginning. We shot Eminem and Britney Spears right in the beginning. Eminem was singing and carefree; he was still Slim Shady then.
When you’re looking through these books, what does your work say about fame?
I feel that musicians have always given more to the world than the world gives back to them. It’s a very tough life, giving yourself to the public and becoming that kind of fame. Jim Carey once said, “I wish everyone could get rich and famous and just understand it’s not going to make you happy.” You shoot artists at the beginning of their career for the cover of Rolling Stone and then see them years later and they have the weight of the world on them. That’s that pressure to stay relevant, to keep the Number Ones coming.
Who is a musician that you’ve shot that you particularly like?
Miley Cyrus. I love the Backyard Sessions [videos] she did and the collaboration she did with the Flaming Lips. A lot of people don’t know too much beyond her pop music. I think she’s a free spirit, physically beautiful; she looks like a rock goddess, like a Stevie Nicks of our time. And she’s a great songwriter with an amazing voice.
There’s a great shot of her covered in glitter in one of the books.
She’s on the cover of the box and then it’s like she’s inside a jail cell. It’s the same room. She’s up for anything, too. She understands the importance of the visual. A lot of rock stars do.
Have you ever had to convince a musician to do something outside of the box?
No. Most of the time it would work out. I try not to tell people very much about what we’re doing prior to a shoot. If people think too much about it, and if they have a publicist on set or something, they might not want to take the risk. So they would get to the set and see it, and the music would be right – if you’re a fan, you know what they would be into – and it usually works out well. It’s a visual extension of the music. And they’re excited, because they’re performers. There’s a little kid inside them that wants to be onstage. You make people feel like rock stars.
It’s a glamorous experience. You help them enjoy themselves like the way the rock stars did in the Seventies. They’re so caught up in the business now, where they’re too self-determined and handling all the work. You just want to say, “This will pass. You’ll be in your fifties and it’s going to slow down, so enjoy it.” I want to tell them that, because unsolicited advice doesn’t go very far unless you’re good friends with someone [laughs].
I imagine you’ve seen quite a difference in generations, because you have photos of Keith Richards and David Bowie as well as younger artists like Rihanna in your book.
Keith was great. You could just see the teenager in him. He has mischievous eyes, but he’s a real sweet guy. And when you have someone like David Bowie, you can pull from his career and what he represents.
Was David Bowie easy to work with?
It was a strange period in his career. He was doing his album with Trent Reznor, and it was a very dark, conceptual album about a serial killer. So it wasn’t the funnest time. I’m more humorous, colorful. The dark thing was never my way, but that’s what he wanted to do [laughs]. So there was a disconnect the two days that we shot. But it was a very fruitful shoot. He came up with amazing photos.
One of your shots of him that’s in Lost + Found depicts him as almost a papal figure. You’ve shot many people as heavenly beings – like Tupac Shakur with a halo and a scarf. How do you decide who becomes what?
It’s very intuitive. He was somebody very into the arts, having gone to an arts high school like I did. So it was easy for him to accept it. He was interested in creating something dramatic.
It’s funny, when you think of Tupac you don’t think of “easy” but you do think of “dramatic.”
Yeah, he was a complex person and definitely adept at adapting to whatever situation he’s in. He’s an artist and a sensitive artist, yet I think when he was with different people it was different. When he was with his friends from the music business, he was much harder.
Kanye West is another interesting case. You made him Jesus.
Yeah, he ran with that one [laughs]. Ten years later, he’s “Yeezus.”
What was it about Kanye that made you think, “This guy should be Jesus”?
I have no idea. I was in the studio with him quite a bit, and that year was The Passion of the Christ and he’s a passionate person. We didn’t know it would be a [Rolling Stone] cover; we did that for us. Then that cover and that film was everywhere that year. You couldn’t escape it.
The last religious-themed photo I wanted to ask about was of Andy Warhol. Why did you shoot him in front of a bookshelf of Bibles?
Because people didn’t realize he went to church every Sunday. My friend would walk him to church when he was in New York, since he was shy. We know the public side of people, and everyone thinks Andy was all about this crazy Factory and superstars and drugs. They think he had a detached persona, but he was somebody who would walk to his church every Sunday. There’s this other side of him.
He was the first person to give me a job in magazines, coming from working with galleries. Working for Interview was really exciting, because it was such an incredible pop culture zeitgeist. Those pictures wound up being the last portraits of him before he died.
Was he that detached persona to you?
No, he wasn’t. I think that was an extension of his artwork in a way, when he was out in the public. I remember him flipping out because someone had thrown away this coffee tin. Andy found this tin of Folgers in the trash of the magazine’s kitchen and there was some coffee grounds in the bottom that hadn’t been used, and he was screaming and yelling [laughs]. I kept thinking, here’s this guy with this humungous empire, and I couldn’t fathom why he’d care. Then I understood. That saving of things and not wasting stuff is so much a part of the immigrant mentality that was also instilled in me.
What did he teach you about photography and capturing the visual?
Not that much. He once said to me, “Do whatever you want and just make everyone look good.” But what I learned more from him was just how fickle that world was. You could be so relevant at one moment and just gone the next. All these famous people just disappeared – burned out with drugs or just going out of fashion.
When I worked for him, ’84 to ’87, the critics were so nasty, dismissive and downright hostile to him. The collaboration series he did with Jean-Michel [Basquiat] was received really hostile and even racist, with people calling Jean-Michel Andy’s lapdog. And that really ended Jean-Michel’s life, I believe. He never recovered from that. His career was finished. Andy had Interview and more of an infrastructure; Jean-Michel was more of a loner. I was on the outside watching all this stuff unfold, watching Jean-Michel go from being on the cover of The New York Times – the next big thing in the art world – to five years later people literally saying he was a has-been: “From Hip to Hype.” The exhibition didn’t sell one painting. Now the dollar sign [series] are all considered masterpieces.
The works in these books span three decades, your work in the early Eighties and then a lot of your work in the last 10 years with the other books filling in the gaps. What strikes you when you’re going through these?
I think about what Andy Warhol taught me and that I should let things happen and follow my intuition – really having a balance in my life, spending time alone, relying on my gut. My inspiration for me comes from my intuition, but it also keeps me grounded. So it really doesn’t matter what people say about having a lull in my career. There will be ups and downs over 30 years. At one point, I was such a workaholic. It really scared me how fickle people were. It made me want to work harder so the fame wouldn’t disappear. Then it also made me think, “Wait a minute, you’re more than just your work,” so you grow up.
When I was decided to stop working for magazines, I was at the top of my game. I was loving it. I could have just kept doing it and made all that money, but I never started out to make money. It never motivated me. It was easier for me to stop and try a new life. Everyone says, “But this is all you worked for,” and I knew I was done and started farming and then I got the call from galleries. I could never have planned that. So intuition is super important. The only way you get that is being in solitude in nature. Learning to depend on that has kept me inspired and working for these 30 years.
If you’re not in it for the money, why are you releasing these books?
You don’t make money with a photo book, but, to me, they are more important than getting in galleries. I hope people find them inspiring – not just inspiring to be a photographer, but inspiring them to follow their hearts, be creative, be moved like the way that music moves people.
That’s always been my goal: to touch people like music touches people. I wanted to make my, like, Songs in the Key of Life. I set my bar really high [laughs]. That’s why I dedicated the book to Stevie Wonder. Where would the world be without art and music? Unlivable. We’d be in hell.