Desperate housewives are never more desperate than the ones in David LaChapelle's photographs. The image at right, part of a recent fashion story shot for Italian Vogue, has all the essential LaChapellian motifs: sex, chaos, humor, and a healthy disrespect for visual logic. When he looks at a suburban street, he sees a surreal landscape in which the quaint lives of soccer moms can be disrupted by sudden disaster, from a violent storm (in this case a hurricane) to the violent sexual yearnings caused by the sighting of a rock star. This elegant mom blithely walks away from the turbulence, strangely ambivalent to the uprooted world around her. Perhaps, like LaChapelle himself, she simply enjoys the spectacle of it all.
"It's funny, but we shot those pictures in June of 2005, before Hurricane Katrina, and they were at Italian Vogue being printed when the hurricane hit, and all I could think of was that the pictures looked so much like the devastation I was seeing on television," says LaChapelle. Hurricanes happened to be on his mind. "My mom lives in Florida, and they've had so many hurricanes there. So these pictures kind of represent how we're all going about our daily lives, shopping for luxury goods and not worrying about bigger things like global climate change."
It has always been easy -- too easy, in fact -- to see LaChapelle simply as a photographic provocateur who celebrates pop culture and its transcendent vulgarities. That's primarily due to the nature of the work, most of which was made for magazines selling celebrities, fashion, and entertainment on a highly disposable monthly schedule.
It is only in looking back over his 30 years of work that one can see LaChapelle's consistently ironic commentary on the culture around him. More than any of his contemporaries, LaChapelle has been determined throughout his career to create a photographic world all his own -- a place that bears his personal stamp and operates under his very particular rules. He's been called "the Fellini of photography," a statement not at all hyperbolic. His supercharged colors and archly funny juxtapositions -- a model crushed under an enormous inflatable hamburger; Elton John rocking out in a room full of cherries and bananas -- reflected the tastes of MTV generation when he burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s.
"His images are the candy-coated connective tissue of the modern pop culture animal," one commentator noted midway through the following decade. Lately he has dabbled successfully in documentary filmmaking with his 2005 film Rize, which another critic called "a gripping portrayal of the hip hop ghetto nation." He also designed and directed Elton John's 2004 Las Vegas extravaganza "The Red Piano." But his legacy is still defined by the images he shoots for magazines and collects in books, particularly LaChapelle Land (1996) and Hotel LaChapelle (1999), both of which sold out initial print runs and became highly valued by collectors.