Working for David LaChapelle
I went to a party last night for my friend Garret who was the one who hired me at DLC Studios West and it occurred to me that I’ve never really written/talked about working for David LaChapelle. Working for David was a whirlwind experience. Sometimes when I look back on it that year was eternal, and sometimes it was the shortest of my life. I had been on the road steadily with a few bands for a couple years when a friend of mine came up to me and said “Hey I know you have like a job job but would you be interested in interning for David LaChapelle?”. I would have cut off a limb to work there. It turned out my friend had a friend who worked at the studio and they were looking for interns.
When I first arrived at his studio I rang the doorbell and walked into a cavernous space at a building with a nondescript exterior. There was neon on the walls in this big beautiful space and I was ushered in to an office - with more neon. I recognized the rainbow on the wall as being from the Mariah Carey album shoot for her album, Rainbow. A guy about my age was sitting at the desk, which surprised me, his name was Garret. We talked for a while about what would be required and what I’d been doing with my life in photography. My first day was a week later.
During my two week trial period David was out of town, when asked to show up twice a week I asked if I could come more, when told to get there at 10:00AM I asked if I could come earlier, when told I was done at 6:00PM I asked to stay later. This was how I functioned during the entirety of my internship, I was there most days unless I was ill. My first big task was transferring all VHS of David’s press to Digi Beta so that it could be cut together into a reel for his site. I spent two days till the wee hours of the morning in a small room at a post production house in Culver City watching every public word that had ever been recorded out of David’s mouth.
I was grateful that David wasn’t in town. I don’t often get “star struck” in my line of work, though I’ve met some pretty amazing people, with him it would be different. When I started shooting in high school I fell in love with black and white, I didn’t feel that color photography could capture the same emotions and contrast, or have the same “pop” that black and white did. One day when my mom and I were in our local Borders Books we stopped in the photography section, I picked up a book called “Hotel LaChapelle”, and my head exploded. Through David’s understanding and use of light, the colors in his photographs took his statements and shouted them from the rooftops. The images seem to burst forth from the pages and come to life. I bought my first pack of good color film that day, and a few weeks later the book was mine.
Meeting him was something I was absolutely terrified of. After my trial period at the studio ended I was informed that they’d like me to stay. I then began work on a project that would ultimately consume the bulk of my time there, working on the archives. At the time they were just making a list, accounting for everything that was housed at the Los Angeles Studio. Old prints, negatives, magazines, album covers, advertisements, exhibits, books, etc. It was like heaven.
The first day I met David I could barely talk, let alone remember mundane details like my name. He walked in wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, and a trucker hat, backpack thrown over his shoulder. This is his uniform. He was loud and boisterous, and very nice. We were preparing for what would be my first shoot at the studio, Lady GaGa for her first Rolling Stone cover, as well as shots for a deluxe version of her album. I worked with the art department, painting props and wiring a crystal chandelier on a set. That shoot had six shots total, on five different sets. It was a mind blowing day that began with my pasting cut out tabloid headlines on a very naked GaGa. From start to finish I’d never been part of anything like it.
A few days after the GaGa shoot I was in the viewing room working on the archives list, listening to my iPod. The studio is enormous and the room I was in was out of reach of the music playing in the main area. I was on a pink cloud, listening to Elton John and Kiki Dee’s duet of “Don’t Go Breakin My Heart”, I was singing, apparently quite loud to Kiki’s parts when David burst in to the room singing Elton. I was mortified, apparently they could hear me out in the main studio. He insisted that I continue to sing and then he laughed. That was the first time he said my name, and I couldn’t believe he knew it. I called my mom that night and kept saying “He knows my name, David LaChapelle knows my name!”.
A few months in to my internship, the unthinkable happened, Michael Jackson died. I was inconsolable and confused at feeling that way about the death of someone I’d never even known. David, it seemed, understood. We began to talk about Michael and his life and his work. We talked about what his message and music meant to us, and we talked and we talked and we talked. In so many ways I’d found a kindred spirit on this subject and was grateful. One of my fondest memories from the studio was being there at about 10:00 o’clock at night dancing in the middle of the room with David and a few of my friends that were either also employed there or simply friends of David’s to Michael’s music for about an hour. All of us laughing and moonwalking.
David then set out on taking what is my favorite of his photographs, entitled “Arch Angel: And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer”, it’s a tribute portrait of Michael and it’s one of three in a series. It was shot in Hawaii and when David returned and showed me the image, I cried. The photograph moved me in a way I couldn’t describe, it was as though David had taken all of my feelings about his life and death and put it in to a photograph. Poor David was concerned that the photo had upset me in some way, but I thought it was beautiful. It remains my favorite of his photographs.
Ultimately I was hired on at the studio full time. I was the co-studio manager with a friend that I had interned with who’d come before me, and the studio’s archivist. I moved in to the office I had originally interviewed in, as Garret had been promoted and moved to another office. We moved a framed print of Arch Angel in to the room with me. Full time was very different from interning, the hours were longer, and the sleep was much less. More often than not I slept in my office to finish a section of the archives in a timely manner. I began to find that though I loved what I was doing, I was seeing the outside world less and less.
Ultimately, about a year after I was hired as an intern it was time for me to get back to my work. I learned so much from David, he showed me how these photos I grew up worshiping came to life. He pulled me aside during a shoot of Demi Lovato for MILK and told me to watch everything that he did and ask any questions I had. When he decides to take someone under his wing he does it full throttle. It was an experience unlike any other. I had the pleasure of attending the opening of a show of his Early Works in New York last May while I was on tour. He was the same bright happy man I’d worked with, and it was great to see the prints I’d dedicated a year of my life to preserving hanging on the walls. He shouted my name from across the room when he entered and I felt transported back to one of our studio duets (that happened on multiple occasions). I have a lot of gratitude to David for what I learned and the experiences I had there will never be forgotten. I’ve included some photos here, some personal, and some are shots of his that I worked on the shoots of.
I walked some amazing roads working for him, and above all I learned that there is nothing I can see in my head that can’t become photographic reality.
**In trolling the internet I found a video from the MILK shoot with Demi that can be seen here:
And photos of the day Pharrell came by the studio: