David LaChapelle’s Industrial Hallucinations

After retiring from fashion and most commercial photography in 2006, David LaChapelle moved to Hawaii, planning to spend his days farming and relaxing in the tropics. The decision was inspired by his growing interest in the environment and climate change–concerns that fashion magazines, from his angle, could not seriously address. The transition, however, did not stop the 50-year-old photographer from dreaming in pictures (“Images drop in my head,” he explains). Now that the barely-dressed models are gone, his subjects involve even less clothing.

In “LAND SCAPE” at Paul Kasmin, LaChapelle conjures hallucinogenic renderings of industry. Factory refineries become psychedelic, candy-colored theme parks, and gas stations hidden in the jungle are akin to Indiana Jones’ temples. The scenes are devoid of humans, yet a closer look reveals traces of them: cardboard, plastic hair-curlers, cups, straws, and more make up the edifices. “I like to see the craft involved,” mentions LaChapelle. “You see all the defects, the tape, the fingerprints…they give it a human feeling.”

Bathed in the acid green, pink, and blue lights—LaChapelle’s trademark neons—the landscapes look a bit like post-apocalyptic imaginings of a world consumed by itself. “When I was young, we didn’t think about the end of human existence,” La Chapelle says.” We didn’t think about the end of existence at our own hand, with just living.” In the last few years, people’s impact on nature became an issue that the photographer, who started out showing in galleries, could not ignore. “I can’t see, 20 years from now, us going along with the way things are today,” he explains is a motivation. “It’ll take a mass enlightenment, I think, for people to put aside greed and the need for human recognition, and [to] figure a way out of this situation.”

He’s aware that his new purpose may come as a surprise to some—those that saw his recent Kardashian family Christmas card, for example. “There are a a lot of people who will think of me as a fashion photographer….that’s fine,” he shares. “I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just doing what I love.”

Meanwhile, distance from the fashion industry seems to have granted him a fresh perspective on consumer culture. “We’re living at a very decadent time,” he says. He mentions genetically modified watermelons he saw for sale in Hawaii that were imported from Argentina. “King Louis would offer his guests pineapples, as a huge dramatic decadent gesture, because they were shipped in. Today, all our food is shipped in…it’s insanity”

Yet Chapelle, staying true to the orgiastic whimsy that defined his fashion work, did not want to convey the solemnness generally associated with climate talk. “Color and humor are so important, because it can get so heavy,” Chapelle describes. “You just want to turn your head…[but] that will lead to inaction and complacency. We have to engage, we have to be conscious, and not give into apathy.”

There’s a simple solution, he believes. “Be human, and have a sense of humor, and enjoy our lives—even though we’re at this critical time in the worlds’ history,” he says. “We do what we can, but we can’t let it destroy us.” The night of the show’s opening, at the after-party, he proclaimed his beliefs to a wild, densely packed crowd: “Fuck art, let’s dance! Tomorrow we’ll be serious again.”