Certain elements of David LaChapelle's recent shoot for Allure magazine were like almost every other fashion shoot organized in the '90s: the photo assistant with a ponytail and sideburns, the model wearing stiletto heels two sizes too small, the fashion editor dressed for mourning and the crew ignoring the no smoking signs.
But put all those elements inside a gleaming silver conditioning chamber, used to test product durability at New York's Department of General Services Laboratory, and you have some indication of what is setting LaChapelle apart in a field where familiarity - familiar models, familiar sets, familiar fashion - is breeding contempt.The model, Keri Claussen, posed between two steely generators that were props but were just as officious as the meat-locker-looking chamber itself, especially with signs attached warning "Danger Electrical Equipment. Authorized Personnel Only."
Then there was the figure dressed as a lab worker, who kept darting into the photo wielding an elongated ray gun and poking Claussen at intervals.
LaChapelle, 30, is at the forefront of a growing school of fashion photographers who owe more to Ridley Scott than to Richard Avedon, with elaborate props and extras, computer imagery and a fixation on the future.
"It's a very contemporary surrealism," said James Truman, the editorial director of Conde Nast, who published some of LaChapelle's first work for Details magazine.
"He's perhaps just working from a different set of traditions than Peter Lindbergh. It's not about Belle Epoque remembered. It's sort of Dadaism, surrealism, '50s kitsch to '70s bad taste, and '90s cyberculture."
Art directors and editors who have worked with LaChapelle share one comment about the work they received at the end of epic productions: it is always something they haven't seen before.
"He's very much a creator rather than just an observer," said Donald Schneider, the art director of French Vogue. "It's driven by the desire to look into the next millennium: building sets and manipulating the photos on the computer. Everybody is fed up with retro, and the good young photographers want to explore the future and come up with new things. He is the one farthest ahead already."
His most influential signature has been his photos that give the glamour treatment to a source previously untapped by glossy fashion magazines: middle-class, middle-brow, middle America. That style has spread like so many M&Ms tossed across a Formica countertop.