Uniquely Religious And Uniquely Human: David LaChapelle’s “Make Believe”

Early in his career, LaChapelle met Andy Warhol, an artist he had long admired, and began working for him interview Magazine. LaChapelle photographed Warhol’s last portrait before his death in 1987. Among his collection are reproductions of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe and Liz, which use models and makeup and lighting to recreate a pop art feel.

Both queer Catholics, Warhol and LaChapelle, hold similar worldviews. Warhol’s religion is undoubtedly more unstable; LaChapelle is devout, even if his lack of purity is enough to make some conservative Christians cling to their pearls. What they share is a view of God that is both sacred and strange, in large part due to participation in a religion that queer people often feel unwelcome.

Like Warhol’s, LaChapelle’s work contains themes of consumer society. But where Warhol’s Brillo Pad boxes and Campbell’s soup cans comment on mass production, LaChapelle aptly focuses on technology and luxury.

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In Addicted to Diamonds, model Amanda Lepore snorts diamonds as cocaine with a rolled-up $500 bill. In “Icarus,” based on the Greek myth, a character with feathery crutch wings lay lifeless on a pile of broken computers. The Aristocracy series features private planes circling and colliding in pastel clouds, signifying an endless quest for riches.

Religion is often absent from these works – because LaChapelle sees Jesus as a figure separate from these worldly luxuries.

He emphasizes this in the unorthodox series Jesus Is My Homeboy, which began as a fashion editorial for I would Magazine and depicts Jesus at the center of various scenes of urban life.

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“I was wondering what the Second Coming would be like, and that question came to me when I saw someone wearing a ‘Jesus Is My Homeboy’ t-shirt,” Chapelle said in the exhibit text. “It was clear to me that Jesus would likely choose his companions and followers from among the oppressed and marginalized, just as he did in his first incarnation.”

In the series, Jesus blesses a beggar in front of a market with miracle bread and fish. He mediates between police officers and the person they are arresting. A sex worker washes his feet. In LaChapelle’s own Last Supper, Jesus is seated in a small, dimly lit apartment with disciples, most of whom are black males.

This series cements LaChapelle’s empathy and faith. It is particularly impressive because it has the potential to draw the wrath of Christians and non-Christians alike. When I would Editors asked for a fashion shoot, they didn’t expect one with Jesus at the center. When Christians picture a modern day Jesus, they often don’t picture him in the grim reality. Regardless, LaChapelle is undeterred.

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In 2006, Chapelle relocated to a remote part of Hawaii and in return his photography shifted from elaborate sets to a reverence for nature. He photographed the beauty of the island and staged religious tableaux with haloes of light.

“I felt like I was being guided by something outside of myself,” LaChapelle said, “and I was convinced that faith was absolutely necessary to continue my life and work.”

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