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Book Review: Lost + Found and Good News


Book Review Lost + Found and Good News Photographs by David LaChapelle Reviewed by Collier Brown It’s finally here, David LaChapelle’s highly anticipated two-part retrospective, Lost + Found and Good News. And good news it is. The two volumes from Taschen, lavishly produced, boxed in high gloss, and unsparing in bubblegum hues, gather mostly uncollected material from work spanning the breadth of LaChapelle’s thirty years in commercial, fashion, and pop-celeb photography.
Lost + Found (Part I)
Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.
Lost + Found and Good News
Reviewed by Collier Brown

Lost + Found (Part I) and Good News (Part II)
Photographs by David LaChapelle.

TASCHEN, Los Angeles, USA, 2017. 556 pp., 11x14"

It’s finally here, David LaChapelle’s highly anticipated two-part retrospective, Lost + Found and Good News. And good news it is. The two volumes from Taschen, lavishly produced, boxed in high gloss, and unsparing in bubblegum hues, gather mostly uncollected material from work spanning the breadth of LaChapelle’s thirty years in commercial, fashion, and pop-celeb photography.

LaChapelle’s monographs often advertise as striking “coffee table” books, a rather homely endorsement of any big book. I’ve never quite understood it. Oversized and eye-catching: absolutely. Like a disco-inspired
Good News (Part II)
Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.
diptych, the Taschen set begs to be displayed. But somewhere between your books of Jan Saudek and Annie Leibovitz, on a slightly more exalted shelf.

Lost + Found and Good News retain what we’ve come to expect and admire in previous collections by LaChapelle — a lucid surrealism, satirical humor, and contentious play between disgust and beauty. But followers of the photographer’s career will recognize a maturity in these books that deserve and reward repeated reads.

I say reads because, as LaChapelle has remarked, the books’ four hundred-plus images were carefully arranged to tell a story.

In the first part, we’re presented with the world as-is. Miley Cyrus, kneeling on the cover and metamorphosing on the back, enacts her own tableau vivant of tribulation and transfiguration. She’s Magdalene, reaching toward the light of a prison window, and she’s the Blessed Virgin of Guido Reni’s baroque Assumption, but with butterfly wings, drawn upwards toward Xanadu, as if to say, there is trouble and real sorrow, but if you want redemption, if you want to be “found,” you’ll need imagination and a good airbrush.

Lost + Found (Part I) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

Elsewhere, the Christ child is reborn in the streets of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Icarus crashes into the e-waste seas. The tips of pink sex toys derange Dutch-inspired still lifes, like those of so many seventeenth-century paintings. The fecund Venus of Willendorf precedes the sterile wax nude of Princess Diana by sixty-eight pages and twenty-eight thousand years. The Renaissance plays out its dramas in all places and at all times.

Lost + Found (Part I) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

Among its recognizable celebrities, Lost + Found includes a selection of images from a 2014 monograph called Land Scape. For this work, LaChapelle built a series of miniature oil refineries, installing them at various sites around the world, including his farm in Maui. I grew up in southwest Louisiana where petrol refineries constellate the highways for miles and miles. From a distance, they can look like celestial cities, lit by millions of klieg lights. But up close, they smell, feel, and to a great degree resemble, Dante’s Inferno.

Lost + Found (Part I) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

LaChapelle squints at that less-than-glamorous reality. His installations glow garishly like something out of Tim Burton’s Christmas Town. It’s one of those uneasy contradictions peculiar to LaChapelle’s style. The images never condemn that which obviously threatens our, and the earth’s, wellbeing, whether we’re looking at celebrity portraits or Shell service stations in the middle of the very rainforests we’ve razed for oil exploration.

Lost + Found (Part I) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

LaChapelle reminds me, at times, of the Victorian aesthete who can’t abide anything unpleasant or unhandsome. There must be fresh cut flowers in every room. Even so, the beauty is strategic; it is thoughtful. The refinery’s candied incandescence lures you in. Up close, the installations reveal a strange architecture: plastic cups and plastic straws, the very commodities served up on the other end of the refining process — and not only the commodities, but the ideologies that obscure in attractive ways the great ongoing tragedy of conspicuous consumption.

Lost + Found (Part I) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.
In other parts of the book, airplanes spiral downward through cloudy, rose-tinted fabrics, the bottoms of the planes glittering like stars — images that, on the one hand, indict the luxury of air travel at the expense of the environment; and images, on the other hand, that cannot help but evoke, like elegiac mobiles, one of America’s most horrific historical events.

In Good News, the second volume, we look toward the future, toward what the world could be, what it might be.

Good News (Part II) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

But first, the deluge. LaChapelle is at his strongest when he crosses iconographies from art history, theology, and mythology with pop culture. The biblical flood, the judgment of an angry god against a decadent civilization, submerges our casino showrooms and uptown museums: pandemonium overtakes Caesar’s Palace as the beau monde flee the rising tides, Damien Hirst’s shark tank cracks and shatters, and Louis Vuitton handbags float like bloated seals to the surface (one of the more symbolic changes in LaChapelle’s thinking, given the famous Vuitton-Lil’ Kim cover he did for the November 1999 issue of Interview magazine).

Good News (Part II) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

In what is, to my mind, the most powerful image in the book — I among the Lost — LaChapelle updates Théodore Géricault’s famous painting The Raft of Medusa with mixed media and collage. It’s multi-dimensional and more complex than much of LaChapelle’s earlier work. And it’s an image that (like the airplanes) exceeds the scope of its history and touches crises closer to our time. In that sense, I among the Lost provides critics a larger target. Images that accentuate the beautiful where, in reality, only suffering, discrimination, and disparity exist invite a sober, more judicious kind of scrutiny.

Good News (Part II) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

The political, for better or worse, is not LaChapelle’s strength. When the book exclaims on its final pages, “Behold — A New World,” I can’t help registering the colonial legacy of that cry. In the same way, much of the excerpting from biblical texts, especially when employed optimistically by the titles, can come off as politically and historically tone deaf. Of this much, LaChapelle is well aware. He’s defended in numerous interviews his own desire to re-appropriate Christian gospel from extreme American right-wingers. Given how ingrained the abuses of organized religion have been, and continue to be, in western cultures and nations and timelines, we can only wish him luck.

Good News (Part II) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

Nevertheless, the hope for a world renewed is the privilege (the mandate?) of every imagination, starting with the world of oneself. And that’s the real heart of this book. In 2006, LaChapelle retired to an ex-nudist farm in Maui. The former understudy of Andy Warhol had had enough of the spotlight. Magazine and commercial work demanded more than he could give. Overwhelmed, fatigued, and unsatisfied, he came to a decision: no more celebrity portraits.

Good News (Part II) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

But retirement didn’t last long. LaChapelle returned to work only months later, but more adamant about his own self-determination and the execution of his own vision. From this period, we get the Land Scape series and the Deluge. But we also see themes of Paradise Regained, a reflection no doubt on his own withdrawal to Hawaii. In Good News, LaChapelle remakes the sacred in the image of his own humanistic reveries. The Italian Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola recommended as much some five hundred years ago in his Oration on the Dignity of Man. Ventriloquizing the Creator, Mirandola says, “I have made you neither celestial nor terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, like a free and able sculptor and painter [and photographer] of yourself, you may mold yourself wholly in the form of your choice.”

Good News (Part II) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

LaChapelle does exactly that. In this new Eden, Michael Jackson is both Archangel and Dove. Halos enshrine Tupac Shakur, Paris Jackson, and Sergei Polunin. And the models of LaChapelle’s early black- and- white photographs (still exceptional, even in the fullness of his larger opus) stand like seraphic sentinels against the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the ongoing entropies of time.

On the cover of Good News, the Adam and Eve of LaChapelle’s paradise emit spirals of light from their genitals, an electric whirlwind of sexual energy commingling in the air between them, growing, expanding, becoming brighter and brighter. The breakdown of sexual difference, or the confluence of those differences, has always played a significant role in LaChapelle’s art. The transgender model Amanda Lepore has been, for many years and many projects, a central muse. In 2014, LaChapelle created a poster for the HIV/AIDS charity event Life Ball, in Vienna. At the center of a Bosch-inspired Garden of Earthly Delights, the transgender model Carmen Carrera displays herself, penis and breasts, wholly archetypal. The caption reads: “I am Adam. I am Eve. I am Me.”

Good News (Part II) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

The caption maps the utopian quest of LaChapelle’s career: from the LaChapelle Land of his first major book to the Me, Myself, of his last.

America’s great Myself poet makes a cameo in this second volume. Walt Whitman, lover of all things celebratory, all things perfumed and naked and indivisible, greets us where he left off in his Song of Myself: “Missing me one place, search another; / I stop somewhere, waiting for you.” And not just somewhere—Maui!

Lost + Found (Part I) Photographs by David LaChapelle. Taschen, 2017.

David LaChapelle is calling Lost + Found and Good News his valediction to pop-glamour publication. And it may very well be a final dalliance with a particular genre of pop art, but let’s hope it’s not the last of his photobooks. And if it is, well, it’s a goodbye proffered in true LaChapelleian fashion: with flair, originality, humor, and lots of glitter. — Collier Brown

Purchase Lost + Found (Part I)

Purchase Good News (Part II)

Collier Brown is a photography critic and poet. Founder and editor of Od Review, Brown also works as an editor for 21st Editions (Massachusetts) and Edition Galerie Vevais (Germany).

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