Once among the highest-paid commercial photographers, David LaChapelle curtailed his lucrative career in 2005, bought a farm in Hawaii and returned to his artistic roots—a life change that’s led to museum and gallery shows worldwide. Time Out New York talked to the Maui artist about his new “Gas Station” and “Refineries” series, which comment on our consumption of—and addiction to—oil.
How did these projects come about?
I had this idea of a glowing temple in the rain forest that was a little gas station. As the project progressed, I began thinking about what it meant. Everyone goes to the gas station, whether you’re in the tea party or the Taliban. It’s universal. But it’s had a devastating effect on the planet.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
No. An activist is someone like Paul Watson [founder of the antiwhaling group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society], who’s literally putting himself on the line. But I’ve always made pictures that matter to me.
You used models for both of these series. How did you make them?
The gas stations were shot in the jungle at night, using long exposures. They run the gamut from 1940s Edward Hopper-like stations to styles from later eras. A friend helped me make them out of cardboard, wrapping materials and LED lights. They were mostly lit from within, so I had people shine flashlights on them, which lent a mystical feeling.
What about the refineries?
They’re made from garbage, but I used model builders who create miniatures for films. I wanted them to look crafted rather than perfect. We used food packaging, hair curlers, old electronics, and other things from the trash.
What settings did you choose for the photographs of them?
Three of them were shot in my studio in Los Angeles and the other six were photographed on location—including the Pacific Coast in Malibu, a dry lake bed outside of LA, in Joshua Tree, and in the mountains overlooking Pasadena. You see just enough of the outdoors to let you know you’re in a place.
Did you base the refineries on photos of existing ones?
We used elements of many different photos of refineries. We wanted each one to have its own identity—its own look and color combination, using hundreds of LED lights to illuminate the models and smoke and fire to rig them like real.
Lighting plays a key factor in each series. What was the ambiance that you were seeking?
The gas stations are Hopperesque—illuminated spots or beacons on the highway—but the refineries glow like the Emerald City. I remember seeing a refinery as a kid and thinking that it was so cool, but then as an adult you see one and think, “Ew, bad!”
In this show you also have a big photograph of naked people in different rooms of what looks like a doll house. Did you use Photoshop for this picture?
It’s actually a photograph of a real-scale house that was built as a set. It’s a physical structure that’s the size of a house, but we were to make it look like a doll house. Every room is illuminated and it is insulated.
Is the house autobiographical?
Yes, every room is a different Freudian projection: This is a picture of my anger; this is my issue of body image; this is where secrets lie, in the closet; here’s the view of excess, vice, consumption, and addiction. That’s why it’s called Self Portrait as a House. But it’s still about the carbon footprint.
We always say “they” when talking about the environment instead of “I.” Here I am in Hawaii talking to you and I’m using a lot of CO2 to do it. Because of refineries and gas stations, we’re able to live.
David LaChapelle, “LAND SCAPE” is at Paul Kasmin Gallery Fri 17–Mar 1.