In the world of photography, Tyler Shields is one of Tinseltown’s hottest commodities. The 33-year old, L.A.-based photographer creates video portraits and images that incite fascination and controversy. Evocative, symbolic, edgy, racy, political and exceptional are all words to describe his work. But truth is, any number of adjectives would work, if his work was that crudely reducible. The poignant world they depict is not a foreign one, but their precise source is a place hard to pin down. Shields portrays the space between what is and what could be, between what we call reality and what is just beyond, aiming to capture the things you don’t see.
His latest exhibition HISTORICAL FICTION portrays a re-imagining of legendary past events and the population's reactions to them. Topics range from the KKK to the deaths of JFK & Marilyn Monroe.
“I started thinking about these moments that every generation remembers,” Shields said. “Our generation remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when 9/11 happened, but I didn’t want to do something so modern.”
From the moment Shields picked up a camera in 2003, he attracted the attention of Hollywood with his no nonsense, no limitations approach to photography, bound only by his own convictions. A former music video director, he began photography by snapping photos of his actor friends, upon their request. Soon after, Shields emerged as a rising star, shooting the bulk of Hollywood’s hippest young talent, usually in unorthodox, generally scandalous situations. Since then he has graduated from rising poster boy for the culty California alterna-art scene to one of the most sought-after talents in America.
“Personally, I prefer to show nothing and tell everything,” he says.
It’s also common that Hollywood starlets are usually represented in magazines as fragile creatures on a pedestal. But Shields gives famous people a chance to own whatever the joke about them is, and to come off looking cool and empowered without gimmicks. It might look as if he has, to a certain degree, built his career on making already beautiful people look more real, rather than more beautiful. All without the aid of Photoshop or the typical tricks of post-production.
“When I finally decided I was going to do this photography thing, I decided I was going to try to be the best at it that I could possibly be,” he explains. “When I made that decision I said I’m going to do what no one else can do. I’m gonna hang upside down and off of bridges, dangle out of windows, set people on fire and go beyond anything of anybody that I know. So I started doing that and people were willing to come along with me.”
Shields is pioneering his way to the forefront of pop culture, but it’s as though it is his preternatural sense of what is sinister and what is innocent that separates him from the rest. If you look closely, much of his work seems to contain a dual component, the virtuous and the malignant: the angel in the demon, the demon in the angel. There is something both uncanny and demure about his subject matter. Even when suspended in mid-air defying gravity or surrounded by slabs of metal, buckets of blood, mud, guns and glitter, the propulsive dualities reflect the beauty and the "shadow side" of his subjects.
Is this a commentary on a generation so overwhelmed by the proliferation and commodification of violence that it fails to disturb them?
“I’ve never been afraid of anything, I made a decision when I was eight that I was never going to be afraid of anything again,” Shields recalls. “So the idea of being scared of success or of what other people expect of me means nothing to me. I hold myself in higher account than anybody ever will. I demand from myself more than anybody would ever try to demand out of me. If I don’t work harder than anyone else I know, then I’m disappointed in myself.”
Shields has gotten slack in the past for his provocative photos of Hollywood starlets. But his signature photography has become more iconic and it's rapidly evolved from the wild extremes depicted in his work from just three years ago—featuring unexpected positioning of celebrities leaping from tall buildings, trains and bridges, submerged in water, dangling from rooftops, all shot with subtle or overt dark humor. More than static portraits, his photos often appear as a still from a motion picture, with layers of voyeuristic plots ready to play out before your eyes. The lily is not only gilded, but drenched in mud, draped in blood and surrounded by fire.
But he’s spent the past two years focusing on high-end art and getting his works into galleries, museums and coffee tables. Gone are the straightjackets, the over-sized needles, astronaut suits, stuffed bunnies on fire, skeletons, guns, daggers, blood and aggressive glamour that were synonymous with his work. However, his imagery is still as compelling and debatable as ever. Last year, he was in a Phillips Auction with iconic photographers Helmut Newton and Irving Penn. Collectors have started to take notice.
“A lot of artists want an exact statement for everything they do,” Shields claims. “But I never want to not create something because I'm afraid of what it might say.”
In addition to his career as a renowned photographer, novelist and video director, Shield's highly anticipated directorial debut FINAL GIRL sees its theatrical release in mid-August. It's a subversive, revenge-soaked thriller, starring Abigail Breslin, Wes Bentley, and Logan Huffman.
“The idea behind FINAL GIRL was no CGI, no fake effects. I wanted it to be as real as it could be,” said Shields. “The fights are real, the cold was real, and therefore the performances are real. It was certainly a challenge, but I think everyone in the movie will agree it was worth it.”
People have been in the business of classifying art and assigning names for a long time now and rarely are the substantial elements truly brought across in the process. Shields has been doing his own thing as an artist since the beginning, and he isn’t concerned with labels or interpretations – except as a source of juxtaposition within his work. His use of imagery tacitly reflects that all subject matter is fair game.
As we have come to expect and admire, Shields finds the things and the moments that nobody else is really capturing. Whether or not you find his material shocking or disturbing (or provoking), the fact is that Tyler Shields is a shining light at the end of the proverbial tunnel of art mediocrity.
Written by Heather Seidler
Photography by Tyler Shields