He was hired by Andy Warhol. He fired Madonna. He photographed Pamela Anderson and Lady Gaga and also Hillary Clinton, and made a star of the transgender apparition Amanda Lepore.
He earned millions and spent much of that on a self-financed film about an urban dance form created in the rough neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles. When the film, “Rize,” failed to find a large audience, and with David LaChapelle weary after 20 years of 14-hour days, he packed up a career that any commercial photographer might envy, and he disappeared.
“It was 2006, and the money was rolling in and I thought I was going to die,” Mr. LaChapelle, the 48-year-old photographer, said last week. He was making a brief touchdown in Manhattan on the way from Los Angeles, where he keeps a residence, to Hong Kong for an exhibition of his work. It was not just the pressure of a high-flying international career or even a tendency to recreational excesses that spooked him, Mr. LaChapelle said. It was a long-held conviction that he had AIDS.
“I never got tested, and for 15 years I just assumed I was going to die,” Mr. LaChapelle said, looking weary, his face puffed and his mood distracted as he sat for an interview at a gallery on the Upper East Side. While his doomful assertion smacked of melodrama, there was a kind of skewed logic in it, given that the artist came of age in Manhattan when the pandemic was decimating the creative community out of which he emerged.
He did not have H.I.V., as he learned when he finally was tested. (“It’s the luck of the draw, really,” he said. “I was 15 back then and in New York and having sex.”) Both that reality and a desire to restore to memory a period in the early ’80s before downtown life was tinctured by tragedy motivated him to return to the art he made when, as a high school dropout from suburban Connecticut, he first blew into town.
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