It was a truly amazing thing to have legendary photographer David LaChapelle‘s first Australian exhibition in the small Victorian city of Ballarat for Ballarat International Foto Biennale. The visionary exhibition spans his early forays in art photography to his high gloss, glamour shoot and back again. This exhibition’s location at the historic Art Gallery of Ballarat is fitting as LaChapelle’s work is a beautiful collision of classicism, tradition, and religion with consumerism, fast fashion and popular culture.

The first room introduces his early career evocative black and white photos as well as LaChapelle’s portrait of Andy Warhol, a work which is now known to be one of the acclaimed artist’s final portraits before his untimely death. However, these more subtle works don’t linger for long as opposite these works are a selection of LaChapelle’s distinct glossy irreverent fashion pieces featuring big names such as Drew Barrymore, Naomi Campbell, and Britney Spears. Looking at these works, you could mistake LaChapelle’s work as being solely brash, bold and capitalizing on ‘sex sells’ marketing.

However, from the second exhibition room, the exhibition is entirely made of his more intelligent social commentary work. A particular series that stands out is the Jesus Is My Homeboy series which re-contextualizes the place of ancient religious stories in the modern day. This series was the source of much controversy as it shows Jesus in seedy urban settings as part of a community of outcasts. Although it is clear that LaChapelle’s mutation of religious imagery like in Last Supper (2003) is not being solely blasphemous but rather shows LaChapelle reclaiming this imagery and spirituality for everyday people and popular culture. This theme is continued through his Beatification series featuring Micheal Jackson which rather than degrades the Renaissance imagery, uses it to elevate Jackson embracing the Warholian belief in the importance of popular culture figures.

Other works in this exhibition give more insight into LaChapelle’s passion in environmental issues and climate change. The Deluge and After the Deluge series feature images that represent the reclaiming of cultural spaces by nature. Images of galleries and cathedrals filled with water are dystopian reminders of the potential futility of our reverential treatment of the objects that represent our culture. As LaChapelle’s career moved further away from fashion photography, he began to critique the decadence and cost of consumption in his work. House at the End of the World series for Italian Vogue, shows the conflict of his damnation of the trappings of fashion consumerism while he is being part of and profiting from the industry. Seismic Shift (2012) is one of the most thought provoking works in the exhibition. In conjunction with the series previously mentioned, a parallel is drawn between couture fashion and high-end art collection. This image is unpleasant to look at but it is an arresting allegory of the hubris of contemporary art with a disaster scene where prized Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst artworks are damaged and reduced to no more than water damaged property.

The final room of the exhibition continues this theme with incredible landscapes made using the objects of vanity and materialism. The Gas and Land Scape series is beautifully shot and constructed landscapes which beautify gas stations and petroleum plants respectively. Gas reconstructs miniature gas stations with 99 cent store materials and builds them in the Hawaiian forest. The images contrast the romance of the iconic American gas station with the natural beauty of tropical forests, implying the devastating effect that one can have upon the other. Although, environmental issues are forefront for LaChapelle, one of the final images was not only the most visually stunning but also the most poignant images of the downfall of our modern lifestyle. Icarus (2012) shows a modern interpretation of the mythic figure who has fallen onto an endless sea of old computer technology; the discarded and obsolete wake of the march of technological advancement.

David LaChapelle‘s works strength lies in the combination of high quality and beautiful imagery with the potency of political messages. He is so widely enjoyed because he exploits the iconography of popular culture and celebrity while regarding it with a critical eye. BIFB has accomplished a true feat by acquiring this exhibition which is sure to resonate with a broad spectrum of audiences.

Tickets to David LaChapelle can be pre-booked here.