Redeeming the King of Pop: David LaChapelle’s fine art portrayal of Michael Jackson (part 1)

Rude, kitsch, hilarious and surreal. These are just a few labels that critics have applied to David LaChapelle’s (1963) photography and video art work. Yet his work has also been defined as ‘hyper-realistic aesthetic’ and ‘artfully staged tableaux’ that carry ‘layered social messages’. Without a doubt, LaChapelle’s art is made to question and provoke. Particularly when the subject of his work is Michael Jackson, the King of Pop.

David LaChapelle's 'American Jesus'

Subversive and outrageous

LaChapelle’s work on Michael Jackson begins in the late 1990s, when LaChapelle shoots two covers based on collages of Jackson: one for Flaunt Magazine and the other for Rolling Stone. At the time he is an established photographer, working for top editorials such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Magazine. His work results in memorable magazine covers and advertising campaigns.

But not everyone shares his taste for highly saturated colours and controversial themes. Some critics accuse him of bad taste, defining his work as subversive, outrageous and oversexualized. But that is something LaChapelle takes in his stride, as he tells American Photo in 2001: “There’s an obsession with the idea of good taste. Good taste is just something people use to distance themselves from things they consider middle class. But today’s good taste is tomorrow’s Pottery Barn, is the next day’s bargain basement. Anybody can paint their walls white and have wood floors and put a beeswax candle in the corner and say they have good taste. I hate the idea of good taste in photography and art. Nothing is more banal.”

Good taste or not, after working with the rich and famous for over twenty years, LaChapelle feels drained. In 2006 he decides to retreat to the island of Maui in Hawaii to re-evaluate his life. Lodged in the middle of a rainforest where life goes back to the basics, he chooses to turn his career around. Instead of returning to the high life, he buys an isolated island property and turns it into an organic farm and artists’ retreat. Here, LaChapelle rediscovers his love for fine art photography and the meaning of life.

David LaChapelle and friends at his ecolodge on Maui, Hawaii
David LaChapelle and friends at his ecolodge on Maui, Hawaii (photo: Garret Suhrie)

No crack in the facade

In Hawaii, LaChapelle takes time to explore the theme of redemption, or ‘Paradise Regained’, an idea most famously expressed by 17th century British poet John Milton. One of the subjects LaChapelle has in mind regarding this theme is Michael Jackson, whose life and trials fascinate him.

“We persecuted him. Every person who ever bought a tabloid or watched the news, we all contributed to his death by taking in that form of gossip… Madonna has been torn down. Michael Jordan has been torn down. Michael Jackson was destroyed. Like no other person in our times. You have to remember that Michael Jackson was innocent. He was proved innocent in our courts. If you read the transcripts of the trial it is insanity, it should never have gone to court. We spent tens of millions of dollars to prosecute him when we don’t have money for schools in California,” LaChapelle tells Nowness in 2010.

Wishing to balance the overtly negative portrayal of Jackson in the media, LaChapelle decides to portray the singer as a martyr: “I believe Michael in a sense is an American martyr. Martyrs are persecuted and Michael was persecuted. Michael was innocent and martyrs are innocent. If you go on YouTube and watch interviews with Michael, you don’t see a crack in the facade. There’s this purity and this innocence that continued. If it had been an act, he couldn’t have kept it up. If you watch his concerts from Budapest and compare it to a Madonna concert of today, you’ll see such uplifting beauty and a message that you won’t see in any other artist of our time,” he explains to WWD in 2010.

Holding a mirror up to the public

LaChapelle sets out to work, creating a series of fine art photographs of Jackson, plus a video to accompany a double posthumous duet by Jackson and Freddie Mercury. In these works, LaChapelle uses a predominantly serious tone to shift the discussion about Jackson into a religious context. By doing so, he seeks to redeem Jackson while holding a mirror up to the public’s preconceptions and scorn about Jackson’s life.

LaChapelle never actually photographed Jackson, although the two had mutual friends. When creating his magazine covers of Jackson, he used collages and look-a-likes, but never Jackson himself. Apparently, it is one of his biggest regrets. To ease some of the pain and as a tribute to Jackson, he had the name ‘Michael’ tattooed on his ring finger.

Modern-day martyr

LaChapelle most notable Jackson homage is, without a doubt, a series of photographs titled The Beatification. First showcased in the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City in 2010, the series consists of five large photographs measuring 96 inches (or nearly 2.5 meters) in height.

Jackson look-a-like Carlo Riley features on three of the five photographs. They form a Jackson trilogy or triptych inspired by Mexican saint cards. The singer is depicted in a natural setting of dense woodland and rugged coastlines. All three photographs carry one of Jackson’s lyrics as a subtitle. All three photographs contain Christian imagery and Catholic iconography. And all three photographs portray Jackson as a martyr.

Martyrdom was something LaChapelle strongly associated with Jackson’s tribulations: “I don’t think he was capable of hurting anyone. I think there’s something really biblical about what happened. His lyrics are so naive and so beautiful. It’s one of the most epic stories of our time, to go from such heights to such depths. He’s a modern-day martyr,” LaChapelle tells The Sunday Times in 2009.

American Jesus

David LaChapelle's 'American Jesus'

The first photograph of the trilogy, ‘American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly’, takes its inspiration from Michelangelo’s Pietà, the famous statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Christ. “I’ve always been intrigued by that: taking an idea that has been depicted so many times by Old Masters throughout the history of art… I wanted to keep the authenticity without having it become ironic,” LaChapelle explains to Haute Magazine in 2008.

In the photograph, a classical looking Jesus, dressed in modern but tattered clothes, sits in lush woodland, holding Jackson’s limp body in his lap. Jesus’ eyes are lifted up to heaven as if in conversation with his heavenly Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) and “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34) are just two biblical quotes that come to mind.

Jackson is dressed in his signature performance gear: red shirt, black trousers, white socks and black shoes. His iconic sequined glove has slid off his right hand and lies at the naked feet of Christ. The glove symbolizes more than just the gift of music that Jackson brought to the world. In art, a fallen glove also symbolizes the loss of innocence. At the same time, it can signify death as a ‘casting off’ or ‘shedding’ of the human body.

The title of the photograph ‘American Jesus’ can be interpreted in multiple ways as well. Who is Jesus in this photograph? The bearded man holding Jackson? Or Jackson himself, as he is portrayed in the position of Michelangelo’s dead Christ? LaChapelle seems to suggest that these roles are interchangeable.

The Beatification

David LaChapelle's 'The Beatification'

The second photograph, ‘The Beatification: I’ll Never Let You Part For You’re Always In My Heart’ shows Jackson holding hands with a woman dressed in an ornate white gown. She could be a bride, an angel, or the Virgin Mary. The model that LaChapelle worked with in this particular photograph is ‘Victoria’s Secret’ Hana Soukupová.

In ‘The Beatification’, Jackson again takes the role of Christ. His red jacket shows a shining image of the Sacred Heart, symbol of Christ’s divine love for humanity. This type of imagery is predominantly used within the Catholic tradition. Looking straight ahead, Jackson is holding hands with Mary or his bride – a traditional way of describing the relationship between Christ and his Church.

The title of the photograph suggests that, with Jackson’s honour restored, he is on his way to sainthood. Beatification in the Catholic Church is a significant step in the process of canonization which declares that a person who has died is a saint. The idea is not all that far-fetched, according to LaChapelle.

“In the Martin Bashir interview, there’s a kid with cancer without any hair. Then you see him later and he’s better, and his family said that it was Michael’s belief that cured him. Which, I’m Catholic, and healing the sick is one of the criteria for sainthood. Not to say that he really was a saint, but he was so otherworldly and certainly fits the requirements for martyrdom… He really brings into question all of these issues of gender and race, which are such hot button issues of society. Why can’t a man hold a child’s hand? Does it have to be erotic? I think that says as much about society as it does about him,” he tells Interview Magazine in 2009.

Symbols abound in ‘The Beatification’. Jackson is holding a pocket watch that is chained to his costume. It can mean many things: carpe diem, or memento mori, or it could indicate that in due time the truth about Jackson’s life will be revealed. In the Christian context of the triptych, the white dove resting on Jackson’s hand symbolizes the Holy Spirit. Carrying a sense of innocence and purity, the dove at the same time refers to Jackson’s well-known love for animals.

In classical art, however, the Holy Spirit is often portrayed with reference to the Father and the Son – making up the Holy Trinity. If the dove is the Holy Spirit, and Jackson is the Son, then who is the Father? Could the Father be a woman? Or is the Father absent, as a symbol of Jackson’s ambiguous relationship with his father Joe? LaChapelle leaves no further clues, which makes this work all the more intriguing.

© Annemarie Latour

Note: Here you will find part 2 of this article.

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