When Fiona Sweet took over as the creative director of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in 2016, she began scouting for a headline event to make a statement in 2017. At the top of her list was one of her personal favourites, American photographer David LaChappelle.

“I’ve been a fan for a long time,” says Sweet. “I love the consistency of his artistic integrity and vision. You can look at one of his photographs and just know it’s his.”

LaChappelle’s instantly recognisable work blends religious imagery with celebrity and garish colour schemes. Despite his notoriety, LaChappelle has never formally exhibited in Australia, making the Ballarat showing a coup. More than 90 images will be on display, all hyper-real, blackly witty and kitsch – and you do need to see them in the flesh. The sheer scale of the works (the piece Pieta is two-and-a-half metres high, and Deluge is more than seven metres wide) is an intrinsic part of their power. "When you see them at this scale, you can see why it’s necessary,” says Sweet. “You feel surrounded.”

With LaChappelle’s artworks only on display at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale until September 17, we asked Sweet to highlight several of her favourite pieces.

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Andy Warhol portrait (1986)
In stark contrast to the vast, detailed religious compositions of LaChappelle’s most well-known work, this 1986 portrait of his mentor Andy Warhol is comparatively minimal. But the early indicators of his later interests are there. Warhol is backlit to give him a Christ-like glow and he poses in front of a row of leather-bound books including multiple bibles. “It’s a beautiful little black and white portrait,” says Sweet. “Warhol was someone who David admired and respected, and was fortunate enough to work for him.” LaChappelle was just 17 when Warhol employed him as a photographer at Interview magazine. “He doesn’t talk much about their working relationship, but Andy gave him his first break, and also his introduction to the world of celebrity.”

Can You Help Us? (2005)
Two models in pink tutus pose in the dust of a recently destroyed house. Children play underfoot. Other images in the same series, entitled The House at the End of the World, show that the house has been hit by a falling airplane. “A lot of the pieces you’ll see in the exhibition are that contrast between beauty and destruction,” says Sweet. Can You Help Us? shows opulence and glamour in the midst of domestic destruction and decay. It’s America in a nutshell.

Rape of Africa (2009)
In a bombed-out building, Naomi Campbell, standing in for the goddess of love Venus, sits blank-faced, her dress torn. Mars, the god of war, sleeps. “It’s amazing,” says Sweet. “It’s so layered and rich with symbolism.” LaChappelle often references Renaissance art, and this piece is based heavily on Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’, recreated under neon glare, with added layers of political commentary. “Even though he uses this brightly coloured imagery, he’s quite a political artist,” says Sweet. “This piece alludes to rape and the mining industry in Africa.” Children wield guns, and Campbell’s torn clothing indicates assault. Campbell represents the contemporary image of African beauty, set against a continent in turmoil.

Pieta (2006)
Again, this photograph has a Renaissance precedent. LaChappelle’s Pieta is based on Michelangelo’s sculpture of the same name, which depicts Mary holding Christ after the crucifixion. Here, Mary has been substituted for Courtney Love, cradling a model doppelgänger for Kurt Cobain. “LaChappelle plays with contemporary celebrity and its place in our society then links it beautifully to classical portraiture and painting,” says Sweet. “It’s a tragic image.” Is the image of Love as Mary and Cobain as a fallen Christ figure, complete with stigmata, not just a little bit blackly funny? “Funny?” says Sweet. “I wouldn’t have used that word. It’s his interpretation of the classic images, and it’s up to us to interpret them. You find it funny, I find it quite sad.”

Beyond LaChappelle: what to do in Ballarat
LaChappelle’s art has never been exhibited in Australia before, let alone in Ballarat. Make it a day trip – here’s what to do while you’re there.

Yellow Espresso
Nestled in an unassuming shopfront on Ballarat’s main street near Central Square Yellow Espresso offers communal wooden tables, matcha pancakes and Axil Coffee.
13 Sturt Street, Ballarat

The Lost Ones Gallery
Tucked in behind The Art Gallery of Ballarat is this contemporary display, housed in an old Masonic temple. Catch exhibitions such as the immersive photographic works of Tamara Dean, on show from August 16 to September 17.
14 Camp Street, Ballarat

Mitchell Harris Wines
Mitchell Harris Wines is a cellar door for local wine purveyors in a beautifully redecorated heritage building set in the middle of the CBD.
Serves small-plate food and snacks to pair with wines.
38 Doveton Street, North Ballarat

Catfish restaurant on Main Road has won a swag of awards for its highly regarded contemporary Thai food.
44 Main Road, Bakery Hill

Hop Temple
Set at the back of the vibrant Hop Lane, Hop Temple is a brew pub boasting a lot of beer: 16 taps and 220 bottles in-house, the majority of which are Victorian.
Rear of 24 Armstrong Street North, Ballarat Central

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Visit Ballarat. David LaChappelle is at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until September 17.