David LaChapelle Thinks Good Will Triumph Over Evil
The legendary photographer discusses his latest and final books, "Lost + Found" and "Good News," heralding the end of his career-spanning anthology.
If Helmut Newton could be accused of decadence, then David LaChapelle might be accused of decadence on steroids. His photographs, often bordering between the fantastical and the divine, have been presented in two brand-new tomes, Lost + Found (Part I) and Good News (Part II), marking the end of the LaChappelle Land pentalogy.
The two new books, volumes four and five in the series (though they also work as a standalone duo) are comprised of photographs made before and after his tenure as a magazine photographer, with images from the early 1980’s originally shown in galleries around New York, and images from this past decade shot for his own pleasure. LaChapelle calls them “the most powerful” of the LaChappelle Land anthology, and added with a sigh that they’re “probably the last books I’ll do,” citing the extraordinary intensity of generating these final two volumes.
“It’s kind of a full circle,” he said of the two periods the books cover. “I’ve gone back to analogue and gone back to a lot of the techniques of experimenting, [like] back in the ‘80s with color and dyeing the negatives to make the Paradise series, which Good News ends on. They’re stories told in a linear fashion.”
Thematically, Lost + Found and Good News are divided between visions of today and visions of the future. Where Good News focuses on what lies ahead, alternating between dystopia and paradise, Lost + Found is more traditional LaChapelle, filled to the brim with the opulent fantasy worlds only he could create, in a representation of our current time. A nymph-like Miley Cyrus adorns its cover, lifted up by petal wings as cherry blossoms sprout around her, their branches having pushed through the window of the prison cell she floats within. “She’s a really wonderful musician and free spirit… I love how she looks,” he said of Cyrus, calling her “the perfect person to represent [the book].”
LaChapelle describes the book as “a reflection on the world we’re in today [and] the people that make up that world, from the Kardashians, to Hillary Clinton, to Julian Assange, to Amy Winehouse.” But in its finale, Lost + Found reveals images without celebrities and decadence; a few photos show a quiet scene, a gas station tucked into a rainforest, its neon lights illuminating the surrounding trees. It’s more harmonious than dystopian, but it’s still an unsettling image. “The gas station is sort of the united temple,” said LaChapelle. “All humanity worships that. Using fossil fuels is really what enabled us to have everything, [for] populations to skyrocket, for us to do all the things that we do, but can be the cause of our perishing as well.”
Religion has always been paramount to LaChapelle’s work, weaving its way through his photographs sometimes overtly, with various Pietàs (“The greatest loss is a mother losing her child,” he noted) or with subtler references, like gas stations and refineries refashioned into temples. As its title suggests, Good News is packed with religious symbolism, with images of angels and saints, suffering and resurrection, culminating in visions of paradise. “I was always interested in the miraculous realm of being, not just the material realm, and trying to photograph the un-photographable,” mused LaChapelle. “The mystical is interesting to me.”
“For me, religions are rivers of truth leading to the same ocean,” he continued, not fixating on any one religion in particular for inspiration. “It’s too easy just to look at the negative things religion has done. It’s also done incredibly positive things for people—and I’m talking about all the major religions, which share the same ideas of helping the poor, of being truthful, of not living in a material, greedy way. I’m trying to salvage the thing that I find good or truthful about [religion], and take it away from the fundamentalists who ruin everything they touch. Fundamentalists use religion as a weapon to separate us.”
The paradise depicted by LaChapelle through the end of Good News is often situated in a rainforest, not unlike his own surroundings at his home in Hawaii, where he goes for inspiration and solitude. “Michelangelo said that the beauty of man is proof God exists, and I’ll take that one step further and say the beauty of man in nature is proof God exists,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to illustrate and celebrate in these pictures, the paradise series especially.”
As the year draws to a close, a year that has been tumultuous for many, LaChapelle’s books are a timely quiet commentary on our current state, with Lost + Found emblematic of today, and Good News—hopefully—representing what’s to come. “I feel hopeful for the future,” he said. “To have faith means that good will prevail over evil, and that light over dark.”
“And so I have that faith,” he continued. “To watch too much news can lead to cynicism, which can lead to apathy and doing nothing because it will seem hopeless, but one has to be very careful of that. As an artist, we have a choice of what we can create, and I want to create things that can enlighten you and touch people and bring hope. I want them to feel hopeful, I want them to feel engaged with beauty and transcendence—good news—light over dark.”