A taped conversation between David LaChapelle and myself, running in the media room adjacent the exhibition. Thanks to David for the kinds words and support (and sitting through the interview), and to George Evan and Jon Ryan for putting at all together.
One last mug shot and some well earned rest. A special thank you to everybody who made such a wonderful evening possible!
– written by Kris Wilton for PDN’s Emerging Photographer Magazine
Sometimes creativity thrives on constraints. Consider the case of photographer Garret Suhrie. He spends most of his daylight hours working for superstar photographer David LaChapelle, leaving him with previous little time to pursue his own photography. And yet he has been able to produce his most satisfying imagery to date – an atmospheric series with the working title “Phantasmagoria” that was inspired by the night. “I ended up never seeing the sun,” says Suhrie, 26, of his day-job schedule, which involves working 12-hour days, five days a week in LaChapelle’s studio. “So my current series is shot entirely at night. I had to adapt that frenetic schedule, so all I ended up having time for was long exposures, but it was a great decision, because I found a style and vision I’m happy with, and really enjoying.”
Not that working for LaChapelle has been a burden. Quite the contrary. For Suhrie, who freelanced for several years – including in Tokyo and Rome – after graduating from Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art and relocating to Los Angeles in 2007, the job, though demanding, opens more creative channels than it closes. “Taking a $100 job here, a $1000 job there, and not knowing where the rent is coming from, it really just burdens your mind and stifles your creativity, because you’re so focused on how you’re going to live,” he says. Having a steady job has given him “a lot of freedom just to create, without the weight of where the rent is coming from.”
Suhrie landed an internship with LaChapelle after being introduced by a mutual friend, and within three years, swiftly worked his way from production assistant to studio manager, then to his current role: post-production, which includes retouching and preparing for gallery and museum exhibitions. On shoots, he helps out with production and digital tech. But while he is serious about his work for LaChapelle, he has also studiously avoided falling into an apathetic stance about his own photography. “I just promised myself that even if I took a job, I’d always find time for my work,” he says firmly. And his prolific “Phantasmagoria” is a testament to his drive. On his website, garretsuhrie.com, visitors can se more than 100 images, ranging from celestial depictions of stars streaking the desert night sky to luminous renderings of infrastructure and refuse around LA, to kinetic long exposures of nighttime traffic in Taipei.
“I try to keep it very painterly and ethereal,” explains Suhrie. A trained painter who grew up obsessed with nature and loving Ansel Adams “and all the great photographers of the American West,” he’s combined his love for the natural world, inspiration from the Impressionists and a desire to “show a different perspective on a theme we’re so familiar with” into a style that’s all his own.” Honest but uncanny, precise but dreamy, still but full of movement.
You’d think that spending all day on someone’s else’s images – especially ones as vibrant and distinctive as LaChapelle’s – could cloud your creative vision, but Suhrie says that’s not the case at all. “I love being in such a creative environment, it only inspires, never hinders. Plus, our subject matters are so drastically different, we’re never step on each other’s toes,” he says. “I’ve never met somebody who cares as much about his work as David. Every pixel matters in his image, no detail is unimportant. I think the care he puts into his own photography rubs off on me and helps motivate me. If anything, it’s just made me realize even more that this is what I want, and helped me realize how I might get there.” One major departure Suhrie’s made from LaChapelle is in the post-production, as he shoot primarily on large format film and does no digital manipulation to his own images. “When you spend 12 hours retouching for someone else,” he jokes, “the last thing you want to do is look a computer when you get home.”
Suhrie says that LaChapelle is both a big fan of his work and a major supporter. “David’s been really amazing,” he notes. “He’s had a very mentorly attitude toward me. He loves to find and foster young talent, I feel really blessed that I’ve met him and that he’s taken such a shine to me. Plus, he’s my biggest collector!” Last August, LaChapelle made the mentorship role official when he chose Suhrie as he protégé for a Maybach Mentorship award, for which the German Maybach Foundation chooses a leader in the arts, science and other fields and offers financial and other career-development support to a protégé of his or her choosing.
Award or no award, LaChapelle’s advice and guidance have already been life-altering. “When I moved to LA,” Suhrie says, “I got sucked into fashion and commercial work, shooting anything I could to make a buck. With David’s help, I realized that I didn’t really care about fashion. You need to be 100 percent with whatever you’re doing, and if you don’t love it, if it’s not your calling, you’re not going to get anywhere with it. I realized what I was doing wasn’t my passion, and David gave me the confidence to keep experimenting and evolving until I found something I love.”