Playing the fame game with David LaChappelle

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Courtney Love Pieta

Maybe you don’t have to be famous for David LaChapelle to take your photo, but it helps. In a commercial world obsessed with celebrity, celebrities use LaChapelle, and he uses them. His treatment of them often comes with a bit of mildly erotic pop-world glitz, a back-handed touch of religiosity and some Dali-esque surrealism.

This American’s work is the main, though by no means the only visiting attraction at Ballarat’s Foto Biennale, where the city for some weeks pays almost saturation homage to the photograph, from the Art Gallery of Ballarat itself to tiny cafes.

 LaChapelle has not shown in Australia before, though his pictures appear regularly at many venues around the world. He does imaginative work in a variety of visual fields: film production, musical video and innovative photography.

Still, it’s one thing to exploit the ready-made glamour of someone already famous, something any number of commercial photographers, including LaChapelle, do well, and quite another to take the next step and make art from this business.    

American Jesus: Hold me, carry me boldly, 2009
American Jesus: Hold me, carry me boldly, 2009

A parade of romantic extremes

LaChapelle often manages that with a combination of visual fantasy and a parade of romantic extremes; the paradise along with the hell, showing us something about his celebrity victims, and possibly about us, that we all hoped would never be noticed.

There’s not much gritty black-and-white realism here, the stock-in-trade of many art-photographers. His stagey sets and odd juxtapositions of humans, objects and animals, especially when most detailed, always look artfully contrived, dream-like. It’s make-believe for real. Pop-idol, sex goddess, movie star, hot-gospeller: they all end up as LaChapelles.

This work, in spite of its occasionally dark stance on various social and sexual minorities, is not photo-journalism, it’s not about lofty aesthetic statements either, though LaChapelle produces some dazzling colour for his subjects. It’s theatre. And it’s here that light, the silent artist in all fine photography, makes its contribution. Some 19th-century photographers copied narrative painters who gave their seductive figures harems and boudoirs to play in. On the other hand, painters like Degas at the same time only adopted photography as a useful resource. LaChapelle is firmly among the story-tellers.

Last Supper, 2003
Last Supper, 2003

The superficiality of kitsch

His often crowded pictorial anecdotes comment on the fragile nature of celebrity and its inherent tendency to be destructive. Using kitsch to make a point about the superficiality of kitsch is rather cheeky, and his extravagantly contorted poses of women seem like a parody of the erotic, though you might say that it’s a way of objecting to the objectification of women.

Some of his pop-culture subjects, trapped by their own promotion, appear to live in a constructed set of illusions, isolated from reality; and posing Michael Jackson as a sort of dead Christ in imitation of Michelangelo’s Pieta is typical of the way LaChapelle leans on earlier art and turns it around in quirky ways. You find plenty of symbols and ambiguities to unravel. Religious associations recur: for example, Last (and First) Suppers (a la Leonardo da Vinci) and male-heroic echoes of the Sistine Chapel.

In some earlier work, an innocent-looking Hillary Clinton appears with a single tempting apple on her desk; but the fruit has a dark spot of decay on it. In another, an apparently willing beauty-with-beast embrace is made suggestive by a squashed banana near the gorilla. And Jerry Springer’s over-expansive smile fatally includes one black gap.

There are many links with other art: one’s a funky take on Cartier-Bresson’s wonderful photo of a man jumping over a puddle. LaChapelle’s eerily lit petrol stations, full of implied menace, strike a different note from Edward Hopper’s famous painted versions, obviously the model for LaChapelle’s, and which are really about terminal boredom.

Andy Warhol: last sitting, November 22, 1986
Andy Warhol: last sitting, November 22, 1986

An eye on art history

So these photographs, for all their pop sophistication, begin to look like the work of a traditional artist with one perceptive eye on art history and the other on wild music videos.

Now that anyone with a phone can claim to be a proper photographer, the days of dark-room film manipulation and long exposures might seem numbered, but of course the same rules apply to photographers as to any artists: it’s the vision that counts, and the way technique and inspiration interact.

The substantial Martin Kantor portrait prize offered in Ballarat echoes the Archibald Prize for painting in that you are meant to portray someone already well-known; a celebrity portrait, in fact. Painters have often stretched this point to include great paintings of mates, who only become celebrities after the decision. I hope the judges police this requirement flexibly. 

Written by Ronald Millar
July 19, 2017

The 2017 Ballarat International Foto Biennale runs from 19 August to 17 September. Exhibitions may contain sensitive images. Please check the website. MORE: ballaratfoto.org

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Terms and conditions apply. Member must quote offer at time of phone booking. $50 surcharge on Saturday. Must book before end of August, for stays up to 21 September. Subject to availability. Limited availability on weekends. Blackout dates apply. No further discount applies to offers. Offer only available to RACV members for bookings made by 31 August 2017 for stays before 21 September 2017.    

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