He is best known for his photography, which often references art history and sometimes conveys social messages. His photographic style has been described as “hyper-real and slyly subversive” and as “kitsch pop surrealism”. One 1996 article called him the “Fellini of photography”, a phrase that continues to be applied to him.
David LaChapelle was born in Hartford, Connecticut and lived there until he was nine years old. Then he moved to North Carolina with his family, where they lived until he was fourteen, before moving back to Fairfield, Connecticut. He has said to have loved the public schools in Connecticut and thrived in their art program as a child and teenager, although he struggled with bullying growing up. He also attended the North Carolina School of the Arts and School of Visual Arts in New York City. His first photograph was of his mother, Helga LaChapelle, on a family vacation in Puerto Rico.
He was bullied in his North Carolina school for being gay. When he was 15 years old, he ran away from home to become a busboy at Studio 54 in New York City. Eventually he returned to North Carolina to enroll in the North Carolina School of Arts.
Early fine-art photography
LaChapelle was affiliated in the 1980s with 303 Gallery which also exhibited artists such as Doug Aitken and Karen Kilimnik. After people from Interview Magazine saw his work exhibited, LaChapelle was offered to work for the magazine.
When LaChapelle was 17 years old, he met Andy Warhol, who offered him his first job as a photographer at Interview magazine. Warhol reportedly told LaChapelle “Do whatever you want. Just make sure everybody looks good.” His photographs of celebrities in Interview garnered positive attention, and before long he was shooting for a variety of top editorial publications. LaChapelle’s friends during this period included Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat
LaChapelle’s images subsequently appeared on the covers and pages of magazines such as Details, GQ, i-D, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Face, Vanity Fair, Vogue Italia, and Vogue Paris.
His commercial photographs have been collected in a number of books. LaChapelle Land (1996) was selected as one of 101 “Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century” and is “highly valued by collectors”. His second book, Hotel LaChapelle (1999), was described as a “garish, sexy, enchanting trip”. Heaven to Hell (2006) featured “almost twice as many images as its predecessors”, and “is an explosive compilation of new work by the visionary photographer. LaChapelle, Artists and Prostitutes (2006), a limited-edition, signed, numbered book 19.7 inches (50 cm) high and 13.6 inches (35 cm) wide, contains 688 pages of photographs taken between 1985 and 2005. Artists and Prostitutes was published by Taschen and includes a photograph of the publisher Benedikt Taschen in a sadomasochism scene.
LaChapelle’s work has been called “meticulously created in a high-gloss, color-popping, hyper-realistic style”, and his photos are known to, “crackle with subversive – or at least hilarious – ideas, rude energy and laughter. They are full of juicy life.”
In 1995 David LaChapelle shot the famous ‘kissing sailors’ advertisement for Diesel. It was staged at the peace celebration of World War II and became one of the first public advertisements showing a gay or lesbian couple kissing. Much of its controversy was due it being published at height of the Don’t ask, Don’t tell debates in USA, which had led to the U.S. Government to bar openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service. In a long article published by Frieze in 1996, the advertisement was credited for its “overarching tone of heavy-handed humor and sarcasm”. In September 2011 when the Don’t ask, Don’t tell law was finally removed by President Barack Obama, Renzo Rosso, the founder and president of Diesel who originally had approved and pushed for the advertisement, said “16 years ago people wouldn’t stop complaining about this ad. Now it’s (open bi- and homosexuality in the U.S. Military) finally accepted legally.”
Themes in his art photography, which he has developed in his Maui retreat, include salvation, redemption, paradise, and consumerism. It is clear that LaChapelle’s moving in this, “new direction highlights his interest and understanding of both contemporary practice and art history”. His fine art work frequently features models/muses: Amanda Lepore, Carmen Carrera and Katie Johnson.
LaChapelle cites a number of artists who have influenced his photography. In a 2009 interview, he mentioned the Baroque painters Andrea Pozzo and Caravaggio as two of his favorites. Critics have noted that LaChapelle’s work has been influenced by Salvador Dalí, Jeff Koons, Michelangelo, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol.
LaChapelle directed singer Elton John’s show, The Red Piano at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace, which premiered in 2004. The show features extensive use of video technology on an LED screen backing the show that, when built, was promoted as the largest and brightest of all time. Several of John’s songs during the performance are accompanied by short films by LaChapelle.
His interest in film led him to make the 2004 short documentary Krumped, an award-winner at the Sundance Film Festival. It concerned the Los Angeles dance style krumping. After Krumped he self-financed and developed RIZE (2005).
In recent years he has exhibited his works at many one-man shows around the world, including the Barbican Museum in London (2002), Palazzo Reale in Milan (2007), the Musée de La Monnaie in Paris (2009), Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City (2009), Kestner Gesellschaft in Germany (2009) and the Tel Aviv Museum of Contemporary Art in Israel (2010), from which he received the honor of Artist of the Year in 2011. Also recently, major retrospectives of his work have been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei (2010), Museum of Contemporary Art in Puerto Rico (2011), Hangaram Museum in Korea (2012), Rudolfinum Gallery in Prague (2011/2012), and the Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm (2012/2013). Recent acquisitions include Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2012), National Portrait Gallery in London (2012), and National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC (2012).
His father was Philip LaChapelle and his mother is Helga LaChapelle; he has a sister Sonja and a brother Philip. LaChapelle credits his mother for influencing his art direction in the way she set up scenes for family photos in his youth.
Then in 2006, the already established LaChapelle abruptly quit the scene. He moved to a “…very isolated part of Hawaii in this forest. It’s off the grid, bio-diesel cars, solar-powered, growing our own food, completely sustainable. I thought ‘OK, I’m a farmer now.'” LaChapelle’s change in path eventually brought him back to his roots. While in Hawaii, a longstanding colleague invited him to shoot for a gallery, which he hadn’t done since his days as a fledgling photographer in New York. “I was really shocked”, LaChapelle recalled. “I’m so known as a commercial artist, a big name as a fashion and celebrity photographer, I didn’t think a gallery will take me seriously. It’s like being reborn; it’s like rebirth; it’s like starting over. It’s back to where I started, where I very first started in galleries when I was a kid. It’s just come full circle.”
Rize is an American documentary movie starring Lil’ C, Tommy Johnson, also known as Tommy the Clown, and Miss Prissy. The documentary exposes the new dance form known as krumping which originated in the early 1990s in Los Angeles. The film was written and directed by David LaChapelle. Working alongside LaChapelle were executive producers, Ishbel Whitaker, Barry Peele, Ellen Jacobson-Clarke, Starvos Merjos, and Rebecca Skinner. Rize was produced by Lions Gate Entertainmentand released in January 2005, grossing $3.3 million at the box office.
Rize is a documentary following an interview schedule of two related dancing subcultures of Los Angeles: clowning and krumping. The documentary is divided into three distinct sections. The first series of interviews introduces and develops the clowning dance style. The second series explains how the dance style, krumping, evolved from the original clowning and matured into its own identity. The third section of the film depicts a dance battle called The Battle Zone which takes place between clowns and krumpers at the Great Western Forum in 2004. The film style and soundtrack draws creative ties between African dance and developing style of krump. An atypical sequence in the film uses montage to compare 1940s era anthropological films of African dance ritual with contemporary clowning and krumping dance maneuvers.
David LaChapelle opens Rize with a disclaimer that reads, “The footage in this film has not been sped up in any way.” This is a necessary thing to note because the general movements and rapid body contortions that are characteristic of krump dance are done with such speed and intensity that they have been described as mind-boggling at the least. LaChapelle then proceeds to open the film with footage of the Watts Riots that happened in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California in 1965. This upheaval was in response to oppressive acts done by white police officers onto a black motorist by the name of Marquette Frye in August of that year. This incident unleashed a long-brewing hatred and anger over the black oppression in America, which erupted into full-blown riots throughout South Central. The riots lasted a total of five days and at the cost of 34 lives and 40 billion dollars in property damage.
The star of Rize, Tom Johnson, who goes by the name of Tommy the Clown for the obvious reason that he started clown dancing, grew up in Watts just following the Watts Riots. He watched this oppression fester even after the riots drew long-overdue attention to it. For much of his youth he followed the stereotypical gritty South Central life style and grew to become a big-time drug dealer. He reports “luckily” being thrown in jail as opposed to the almost inevitable alternate fate of being shot dead in the wrong neighborhood. He was released from jail in 1992, coincidentally coinciding with the riots in South Central following the Rodney King verdict. The Rodney King riots followed a similar trend to the Watts Riots. They were also in response to police brutality against an African American man by the name of Rodney King. The outburst arose in SouthCentral just following the verdict of not guilty in favor of the 4 white police officers accused of the brutality. The justice system’s failure to amend such a severe hit to the race issue opened eyes to the evident lack of progress made since the Watts Riots and Martin Luther King, Jr. The violence of 1992 Riots was a clear indication of the defeat and oppression that the people of South Los Angeles were still experiencing. Tommy, fresh out of jail in 1992, decided he wanted to do something to lift up his community. He got his big break when he was asked to perform as the clown at a little girl’s birthday party. Upon seeing the joy that his performance brought to the kids, he decided to pioneer a career out of making people laugh. He started dancing on the streets dressed in his clown suit and performing for birthday parties all over the neighborhood earning him the title of “Ghetto Celebrity.” Soon he had a following of kids that would dance with him on the streets, giving birth to the dance style, clowning.
Clowning soon grew into something monumental. The dance group became an alternative option for Inner City kids instead of becoming a member of a gang. This may seem like an overstatement, but in truth it’s not. Clowning has in fact grown into a community, so recognized, so desired, and so fulfilling to its members that gangs have chosen to disassociate as to not cause trouble, and children who join are welcomed into a community with strong values. Tommy provides things for his clowns that they can’t find anywhere else. He is a father figure. Some of the moms interviewed for the film report using clowning as a privilege. When their kids get in trouble they call Tommy and tell him to not let them dance for the weekend. Because dancing is something they love, this teaches them a lesson. He also tells the kids if they are caught wearing gang colors or being associated with a gang in any way that they are in big trouble. Some of the kids even mentioned being reprimanded as if Tommy was their father. This is a wonderful thing for children who may not have the most solid family structure at home. Also, clowning gives the kids something healthy to do with their time. Dragon, one of the lead krumpers, remarks that not all Inner City kids are sports players as the stereotype says, and dancing gives them another venue other than turning to drugs or violence. Also, dancing provides an outlet for aggression, feelings of oppression, and establishing an identity. These kids are being encouraged to move through their hardships by moving their energy and through doing so they make a name for themselves as performers. As shown in the film, Tommy has single-handedly begun to transform the streets. Before the film was released in 2005, there was known to be over 50 clown groups throughout Los Angeles. Now there is close to 100. If you are going to be in the streets, you might as well be dancing in them.
Tommy’s clowns are not the only dance groups on the streets. Krumpers are taking the scene by storm as well. Krump dance is a notably different style of dance than clowning and has provided a healthy rivalry between the two dance forms. Most of the members of krump groups started out as clowns but decided they wanted to push the envelope a little further. While clowning took hip hop out of the MTV spotlight and back into the raw Los Angeles ghetto by adding a new feel and new moves, the purpose of krumping is absolutely to be something original, something raw, rugged, and something that is not a fad, but a way of life. The styles are different in the following ways:
- Krump movements are less figured, less categorized than clown dancing. Arms flail, there is a lot of chest palpitations and the communication between dancers is more war-like. Clowning on the other hand has named dance forms that are mixed together by each individual dancer. These forms include:
- Stripper Dance
- Clown Walk
- Harlem Shake
- Bounce Wit’it
- Krump is notably more aggressive than clowning, although dancers say that fighting is the last thing on their mind when they are dancing.
- Clowns are known to perform for parties and on the streets, while krumpers hold krump sessions instead of established performances. This makes the purpose of these two dance styles different. The goal of clowns is to perform, while the goal of krumpers is to more of a personal catharsis.
Some similarities between the two styles include:
- Both clowns and krumpers paint their faces, although the face paint of clowns is more to look clownish, while krumpers paint their faces in more eccentric designs.
- Both dance styles use their art forms as a release of energy and an outlet for aggression and other things they wish to express.
- Both clowns and krumpers have established crews that they stick with. They don’t seem to intermingle between styles.
- Both groups participate in competitions. The largest being the Battle Zone at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, LA
- Both dance styles see themselves apart from hip hop. They don’t want to be tied with anything that has been commercialized.
- Both dances address gender issues, giving a place for both men and women to express their identities.
- Both dance styles welcome people of all ages and all body types.
The second section of the film is devoted to krump dance. Krumpers Dragon, Tight Eyez, Baby Tight Eyez, and Miss Prissy play key roles in explaining the dance form. The moment footage of krumping is shown, the difference from clowning is wildly apparent. The most prominent feature is definitely the aggressive energy of the dance. The source of this aggression is clear as Dragon says, “We are not heathens or thugs, what we are isoppressed.” Just as seen with the development of clowning, krumpers refuse to surrender under the weight of their oppression. Although the dance may be and expression of aggravated energy, it is in no way violent. Instead, it is proudly held as their “Ghetto Ballet.” LaChappelle elaborates on this idea by incorporating the stories of some of these dancers. Creatively, he shows footage of each individual dancing as they tell stories of the hardships they’ve faced in their neighborhoods. He also includes a montage containing 1940s footage of African dance in parallel to krump sessions. This is a powerful technique that effectively shows the viewer that what these people are dancing is their life stories, and clearly, the anger is justified.
As stated earlier, there is a healthy rivalry between clowns and krumpers. Tommy the Clown utilized this rivalry to create the Battle Zone, an annual competition between the two dance groups that is held over one day at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Los Angeles. The last section of the documentary is devoted mainly to this competition. All of the clown groups and the krumpers put up their best members to battle against each other in a dance show-down to see who is the best dance group. The competition is judged by supporters in the crowd by how loud people cheer following performances from a member of each group. The entire competition is won by the group with the most individual wins. In 2004, when the documentary was filmed, the clowns won seven to four.
The victory for the clowns was great, although the celebration was cut short by a tragic event. While Tommy was at the Great Western Forum, someone broke into his house and stole or destroyed almost everything he owned. This event marks a monumental shift in the film towards focusing on the hardships that the people of these ghettos are working every day to overcome. LaChapelle makes sure to incorporate footage of a police officer consoling Tommy by telling him that these things only happen when someone is trying to make positive change in their community. This is undoubtedly a tie to other leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. To elaborate on the dangers of life in the ghetto, LaChapelle shows two dancers telling the camera about seeing a man get shot on the street corner as they were driving by in a car. The two boys tell the story matter-of-factually as if these things are normal occurrences. To drive the point home even further, towards the end of the filming of the movie, a 15 year old girl who was also a promising dancer of Tommy’s, by the name of Quinesha Dunford (also known as Lil’ Dimples), gets shot and killed along with one of her friends as they were walking to the grocery store. While absolutely heart-breaking, it was clear that the family didn’t want to talk extensively about their loss. There was little footage on the subject, although a sweet gesture was made by dedicating the film to her memory. The last minutes bring the documentary full circle by tying these dance forms, a dance from the spirit, to religion and spirituality. For many decades church has been a vital part of the lives of African Americans. LaChapelle shows parallels between the well renowned, and celebrated art form of gospel to that of krump dancing. With this, spirits are uplifted once again and we clearly see the introduction of dance to these ghettos for what it is, a godsend.
Ties to African Dance
The parallels between krumping and traditional African Dance are astonishing and should not go unnoticed. Director LaChapelle entertained this relationship by using filming techniques and specific discussions that exemplified the similarities between the dances.
One of the most prominent similarities is that of gender roles and sexuality between the dance forms. In Rize, the stripper dance gets a lot of film time and tends to be one of the main dances utilized by the clowns. The stripper dance involves the dancer having their legs spread wide, and thrusting their pelvis rapidly making their butt bounce. This clearly has sexual connotations and sometimes gets even more explicit than that. In some so called traditional African dance forms, sexual movements play a key role. Similarly, in some cases movements are explicitly sexual and are used to attract the opposite sex or dramatize courtship.
Throughout history, people have often described “black” dances as crude, vulgar, lascivious and devoid of grace or technique. However, African dances are often very graceful, requiring expert skill and training. African dance has often incorporated twists or jerks utilizing extreme flexibility often with distortion of the limbs accompanied by polyrhythmic music. Today is no exception. Some extreme technique sticklers will still critique krumping in such a way, even though it has clearly made a name for itself as a legitimate dance form. As mentioned earlier, clowns and krumpers encourage people of all ages to dance. Some onlookers might be mortified at seeing a pre-pubescent girl doing the stripper dance, but as one of the dancers puts it in the film, “She isn’t doing anything wrong. She isn’t being sexual. There is nobody out there with her. There’s nobody touching her. She’s popping, what’s wrong with popping?”
Other similarities are that, while many African dances are non-confrontational, reserved, and stately, some traditional African dances as well as krumping express feelings of aggression. LaChappelle incorporated a montage between 1940s footage of African dance and footage of aggressive krumping showing that dancers practicing both dance forms push each other, yet mean no harm. Dragon at one point mentioned that “fighting is the last thing on our minds when we dance.” As said above, these dancers have every right to express their aggressive energies. Krumping also allows people to dance out conflicts in battles instead of resorting to violence.
Another similarity is the expression of gender identity. Aggressive dances are often seen as a man’s art form, but both African dance and krumping have transcended that stereotype. Women in African dance get their own time to tell their stories through movement, as do female clowns and krumpers. In one scene LaChapelle depicted a man and a woman battling on the dance floor against each other. They both take on their gender roles and use the dance as a way to empower themselves as men and women.
The fifth similarity between the dances is the use of music. Traditionally, in African dance, music does not always dictate the movement, as seen typically in Euro/Western dance forms. Instead, there is an dynamic relationship between the music and movement. Often the movement mediates the music inspiring certain rhythms to be created specifically for that dance. Other times, the opposite is true: the movement is created for the music; and, in some instances music and dance are created concurrently in an improvisation. LaChappelle expressed this unique relationship by creating a soundtrack using hip hop music that spoke about krumping and clowning in particular. In this case a lot of the music was created for the dance, instead of vice versa.
Rize received positive reviews from critics, garnering a high rating of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the critiques were positive and pointed out the beneficial impact that the exposure the film provided would have on the dance form and the people involved. They commented on LaChapelle’s ability to capture the dance in such visually brilliant and dynamic way and compare the dance’s parallels with African roots. Most of the negative critiques noted that LaChapelle seemed to have glossed over issues of urban unrest, sexuality, and violence, instead of making them a focal point of the film. The general consensus of negative critics was that the film was carried by its Hollywood glam instead of delving deeply into the harsh realities of life in the ghettos of Los Angeles.