It perhaps bears no striking resemblance to Lady Di. Her face is too thin. Bubble-wrap stands in for her trademark tiara. Yet it is unmistakably her.
The down-cast eyes rewind the years, bring us back to the infamous picture from the Taj Mahal, where, abandoned for a moment by the Prince of Wales, she sat alone.
That was just months before the divorce.
This, however, is a wax representation of her. Or rather a picture of a wax representation of her. David LaChapelle’s picture.
He found her in a wax museum in Ireland, where burglars had destroyed much of the old figurines.
“The vandals went crazy with the politicians, but they left Lady Di alone,” he recalls in front of the Swedish press at the opening of his mid-career retropective in Stockholm.
An entire room is filled with large-scale portraits of the figurines – some merely scratched, others near destroyed.
Ronald Reagan’s battered skull – muzzle torn from bushy eyebrows – hangs metres away from the almost pristine Lady.
Yet two of her fingers are broken. With the pinkie and index fingers torn right off, the large costume jewellery replica of Lady Di’s engagement ring stands out. The sapphire ring that her son would many years after her death give to his fiancée, Kate Middleton.
In a presentation dominated by a critique of materialism, this detail in the show sums up a key part of LaChapelle’s argument – that once upon a time, objects were revered, passed from generation to generation.
That is no longer so, he adds.
“Our culture has changed the nature of objects, they are now made to be disposed of.”
And he has seen it applied to people too.
“I remember the first time I heard someone refer to another person as “irrelevant”. It was at one of the magazines I worked for when a person referred to an artist in that way, saying he’d been “relevant” a few years ago but not now,” LaChapelle says.
“That was really hard for me to hear.”
“Magazines had been my gallery, and if people tore out a page with one my pictures and pinned it to their wall or to the fridge they created their own museum,” he says about his time in the fashion world.
Working in the magazine world ultimately proved unsustainable for the photographer who cites the Enlightenment as a favourite chapter of history.
“Magazines sell the idea that if if you have 249 pairs of shoes that 250th pair will complete you. It’s a fallacy, we all know that it’s a fallacy but we keep going.”
The message seems to be that consumption isn’t the problem, it’s how we consume. LaChapelle cites as an example the power of presenting images in a gallery instead of having them whizz past in the image-heavy news flow on a computer or a smart phone.
“It becomes a real experience rather than a virtual one,” he explains, surrounded by enormous prints where vivid colours combined with elaborate sets play havoc with any notion of restraint – candy for the masses.
One striking print shows model Amanda Lapore getting ready to inhale what looks like cocaine. Until you approach the large print. The white rows atop a pocket mirror turn out to be made of a different currency all together.
“Amanda snorting diamonds really says it all.”
In 2005, LaChapelle famously packed up shop and left decades of glitzy magazine work behind him, jetting off to build a new home at his Hawaii farmstead.
There began what he calls his own private Renaissance. Yet in the end, the siren call of art galleries brought him back.
“I realized that as a photographer I still had things to say.”
During this time, one project took inspiration from the Flemish masters. LaChapelle set about orchestrating intricate still lives.
“You know, they didn’t have television then so people would really take their time to contemplate these objects, to figure out what the artist was saying by assembling them in a certain way.”
Objects were revered. They were respected. They were passed from father to son, or in the case of Lady Di’s sapphire ring posthumously transferred to her son’s future wife.
LaChapelle says he was also drawn to the still lives because of the documentary aspect of capturing living things at one precise point of their existence. Blooming flowers, for example, that days after the shoot would start to wilt, then decay.
In a culture that worships youth, this seemed apt to him.
“To remind us of the brevity of our lives.”
David LaChapelle’s exhibit opens at Fotografiska on November 30th and runs through March 3rd.