In Lachapelle Land

IN A FAST-FOOD CULTURE, David LaChapelle is Arch Deluxe. His hypercolored photographs of Brooke Shields covered in Reddi Wip, Tom Arnold in a Delightful chicken-to-go suit and Tori Spelling with supersize hair and McDonald's trash at her feet dare to serve up both humor and glamour. It's a takeout take on fame and fashion that's all his own. "The pictures are a place where everything tastes good but nothing's in good taste," LaChapelle says. That combo has made the $2-year-old East Village-based New Yorker the hottest young photographer in the fashion business. Last week his work for Details, Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine-plus ads and videos--earned him the VH1 Fashion Award's photographer of the year.

"His imagination has no brakes on it," says James Truman, the editorial director of Conde Nast magazines. No seat belts, either. When MTV hired LaChapelle earlier this year to create a promo video, he cast a geriatric Madonna impersonator and a blimped-out Courtney Love clone in a spoof of"What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Executives were doing spit-takes when they first saw it. In 1994 he sent up Alfred Eisenstaedt's classic "V-J Day" photograph with two hunky sailors caught in a lip-lock. An American magazine killed the shot, but the Diesel jeans company ran it as an ad all over the world. And when the Times Magazine sent LaChapelle off to Disney World last year, he came home with some of the strangest children's wear shots in the paper's history-how does a Max Factor-ed baby on a topless Madonna beach towel grab you? Not everyone loved the pictures, and not everyone loved dealing with LaChapelle. "He's a pain in the ass to work with," says Times stylist Elizabeth Stewart. "But it's worth it. I've never met anyone with more ideas. Ever."

This month, the best of those ideas find themselves in "LaChapelle Land" (Simon & Schuster. $50), a coffee-table book coinciding with a November showing of his work at the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York. VH1 is also playing LaChapelle's hilarious six-minute video, "Salvation Armani," commissioned by Giorgio Armani and starring Jennifer Tilly, drag queens, club kids and homeboys-not the usual Armani crowd.

Getting fashion designers and celebrities to do outlandish things in the name of art--often against their publicists' wishes--is LaChapelle's mode-ish operandi. He learned that from Andy Warhol, who befriended the teenager when he moved to New York from North CaroLina in 1978 and started working as a busboy at Studio 54. The Prince of Pop later hired him at Interview magazine. "Andy always said, 'Do whatever you want. Just make everyone look good. And save your taxi receipts'." Now LaChapelle relives his teens through his lens. "I like to see celebrities behaving in front of my camera the way they did at Studio 54. They were wild. Caution was thrown to the disco wind machine."

Such good-humored abandon, he says, "is the most modern firing to' inject into fashion and commercial photography fight now." Editors agree, suggesting that LaChapelle's computer-enhanced, cyber-kitschy photographs perfectly capture American premillennial style. "Fashion photography for the last five years has been dominated by a stripped-down, depressed view of the world. David runs in the face of that," says Truman. Adds John Shea, senior VP of marketing for MTV: "People want advertising to say more than 'Buy this' and 'Do this.' They want to laugh and be entertained. David gives them an unexpected visual idea moment."

One of the few people not completely sold on LaChapelle's "idea moments" is his mother, Helga. "She thinks I'm unhinged," LaChapelle says. "I'm just glad he's working," she responds. But it was from her, a Connecticut housewife with an artistic bent, that he learned the power of good art direction-she used to style their family photos by posing in front of mansions and fancy cars that didn't belong to them. Still, he understands why she worries. "The one day she walked into the studio," he says, "there was a girl in a McDonald's bikini standing in front of 300 stinking hot dogs." His fans, of course, ate it up.