Tyler Shields Photographs Young Hollywood
Every culture functions within parameters, with all of the accepted pathways. But along the edges one can find the subversive outliers who pull the expected boundaries as far apart as possible before they break. To make it from the outside, to rise from nowhere, to shock the system—we love that stuff. So, I find myself sitting in the corner booth at The 101 Coffee Shop, the iconic Hollywood diner where Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau wax philosophic in Swingers, waiting to chat with one of those rebellious pioneers, photographer Tyler Shields.
“I’m not a label. I’m not a fashion. I’m not a celebrity. I’ll buy a Ferrari and blow it up.”
He arrives 45 minutes past our appointment time. When he does, he appears suddenly, whisking through the doors in skinny jeans and a rumpled white T-shirt. Shields makes a beeline for me. He shouldn’t know what I look like, since we’ve only exchanged short e-mails, and there are a couple of other guys sitting by themselves with a notepad next to them, looking all writer-like. But the anticipation on my face must be enough for him to know. He’s one of those intuitive thin-slicers best-selling author Malcom Gladwell glorifies in his books, the kind of person whose mere assumptions are almost always on point.
“Sorry. I got stuck in an underground tunnel off Hollywood Boulevard. I was scouting a location and they closed the gates on us. I had to climb out,” he tells me, as if that happens all the time.
From the moment Shields sits down, the notion that I am simply interviewing a rising hotshot celebrity photographer is tossed aside like the packs of sugar I tore into while waiting for him. Shields leans across the table, a pointed look in his dark eyes, elbows on the Formica securing the hands he waves in the air. He says to ask him anything. For a guy who was just trapped in some underground subway-sewer-God-knows-what, he’s about as present and in the moment as anyone I’ve ever talked to. As for how he defines himself, that’s the first simple question to receive a not-so-simple answer.
“I’m not a label. I’m not a fashion. I’m not a celebrity. I’ll buy a Ferrari and blow it up,” he tells me. “People get told, ‘No, no, no.’ It’s instilled in them. I come across so many people who are afraid to live. I want to give them a window to another world. I don’t believe in fear.”
The growing notoriety of Shields’ work precedes his personal reputation as an eccentric who lives in a Hollywood home with blacked-out windows and bottles of A.1. sauce lining the walls as décor. He has grown in profile, popularity and, in some circles, infamy as the photog who arranged the prolifically buzzed-about images of Mischa Barton draped in raw beef (complete with PETA backlash), and of a blood-splattered, gun-wielding Lindsay Lohan. The latter portraits were followed by a muted black-and-white series featuring the celebutante having her breast fondled by Spencer Falls. At one point, he found himself an apologist for Lohan’s state of mind.
“People said she was unstable,” he explains. “So I decided to show them what they were already believing, what they already chose to see.”
Last fall Shields hit an even more sensitive note with his highly controversial series of photos featuring Glee’s Heather Morris sporting a black eye. He caught hell (even death threats) from women’s groups who all seemed to overlook various female-empowering aspects of those images, from the sinister smile draped on Morris’ face to a photo in which she has an iron pressed against Shields’ crotch.
Considering he has captured just as many images of men victimized by violence, often at the hands of women, I’d say his evocative portrayals are comments more upon the repressive state of the political gender conversation than any particular sex. It’s this kind of fearless, unapologetic approach that makes Shields more master provocateur than anything else.
“A lot of the people I shoot are young, and vulnerable,” he says. “I like to use images of blood and bruising. Or a juxtaposition, like a pretty young girl with raw beef. It strips down the beauty. And it catches people off-guard. Seeing a pretty girl along with something almost gory doesn’t sit right with them. But art is supposed to evoke and poke at those emotions.”
“Art.” It’s a word thrown around like a coat you take off, a notion that often seems mutually exclusive with commercial success. But it’s what Shields is doing, no matter how much money he makes. Ironically, it’s the art that keeps Shields in the tabloids, with the sidebar speculation about his famous friends being the kind of celebrity-related collateral he could give a crap about. He comes from a much more real place than the Hollywood daydream he ended up in. And the journey has meant everything.
Shields hails from Jacksonville, Florida. It’s the conservative driver’s seat of the swing state, a big city with a small-town vibe that is home to the likes of Bible-belt hero Tim Tebow. Not the place you’d first think of after sifting through his provocative portfolio. About nine years ago, Shields felt the same way.
“I was always planning my escape,” he recalls. “Then one day I was at my assistant’s house. I was allergic to dogs and cats. And I couldn’t breathe in any part of the house. So I packed up my car and drove across the country. That was that. I have nothing against the South. There are a lot of creative people there, but they can’t get out. You have to be able to give up everything and move on. You have to be willing to hear you’re crazy.”
When Shields arrived in Los Angeles, he quickly engrained himself in the art scene. It wasn’t long before he was making the right friends and answering the door to knocking opportunities. He kick-started his credits by directing music videos, such as Ghostface Killah’s “Biscuits” and Defari’s “Spell My Name.”
“I was privy to a different world than most people experience. I saw the underbelly and the overbelly. I’ve watched friends go from not being able to pay the rent one day to being millionaires the next,” he says. “But I didn’t care about parties. All I care about is creating. Growing up, I was always the one who would get the other kids to do impossible things. So directing videos came naturally.”
As to how he became a sought-after still photographer, well, that’s the best part: “My girlfriend cheated on me, so I borrowed my roommate’s camera. There was one frame of film left. I took a picture of our closet after I threw her stuff out. He developed it. Scanned the print and hung it on the wall.”
That photo became quite the conversation piece, particularly one night during a get-together when a woman Shields did not know wanted to buy it. It turned out she was an ad exec who planned to use the image to promote the MAGIC conference. Shields was hired to shoot the rest of the campaign, and so began his career in photography.
“I taught myself,” he says. “I started posting my work on Myspace. A few went viral. And soon people were asking me to take their picture.”
When all the Pretty Young Next Big Things began calling for their own edgy portraits, Shields started pumping out the thematic work that has elevated his status to the top shelf. Keeping with the bloodletting, Shields’ most ambitious piece involved vials of the stuff drawn from 20 celebrities by an on-site doctor, which he then used to depict a heart on canvas, called, naturally enough, Blood Painting. He also set the web ablaze with a politically charged series that parodies Occupy Wall Street through high fashion, pepper spray, paparazzi and gestapo actions directed toward police figures.
“I don’t manipulate the image at all after it’s done,” he says. “I don’t believe in photography as the art, and I’m not interested in photography as an industry. Photography captures the art. It documents it. The act is the art.”
So what’s next for a man who is now expected to top himself with each new display? Reversing the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words, Shields has taken a leap from imagery to actually produce a novel, Smartest Man. It concerns a spy whose mission is to kill the five most intelligent people in the world so that he can become—that’s right—the smartest man.
The last thing I ask Shields is if there’s a wishful autobiographical aspect to his protagonist. His response is much simpler than his previous ones: “Of course.”