L.A.’s Arch Illusionist
By / Heather Seidler Photos Courtesy of Tyler Shields
In the world of photography, Tyler Shields is rapidly becoming one of Hollywood’s hottest heavyweights. The 29-year old, L.A. based photographer creates video portraits and images that incite fascination and controversy. Erotic, evocative, edgy, and exceptional are all words to describe his work. But truth is, any number of adjectives or approximations would work, if his work was that crudely reducible. The irreverent 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 in real life.
Tyler Shields is, among many things, a bit of an enigma—the mysterious man who doesn’t sleep, has never owned a TV or drank alcohol, knows how to reset bones, puts A1 Sauce on practically everything he eats and generates an inviting environment wherever he goes.
I sat down with Shields to cover what can be gained when society allows more imagination; if he thinks his work is disturbing and on trusting his intuition and his craftsmanship. Shields is at once humble, straight-talking and acute—perhaps some major components behind why his work so compelling.
“To me personally, I prefer to show nothing and tell everything,” he says.
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, semi-scandalous situations—everyone from Hayden Panettiere to Rainn Wilson. 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.
His signature photography has become synonymous with wild sometimes violent extremes, sex-drenched joyrides, suggestively playful depravity—featuring unexpected positioning of celebrities leaping from tall buildings, trains and bridges, 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.
For instance, there’s the infamous photo of a blood-streaked Lindsay Lohan brandishing a knife, a murderous Mickey Mouse, Gary Busey in a straightjacket, and a long list of odd props: over-sized needles, astronaut suits, stuffed bunnies on fire, skeletons, guns, daggers and loads of stripped-down, aggressive glamour. The lily is not only gilded, but drenched in mud, draped in blood and surrounded by fire.
It is known that Hollywood is characterized by an often inexplicable acuity of excess. 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.”
It appears that’s precisely the case. A-list young celebrities seem to be bewitched by Shields, willing to do anything he asks them to. His work offers a distinctly sexual and playfully deviant version of celebrity and beauty. But expression rarely comes without a price. Shields recently incurred a barrage of controversy after a recent shoot with Heather Morris [of GLEE] went public, wherein she sports a painted-on black eye. Conformist types were simmering with displeasure, some sending Shields death threats, accusing him of condoning and objectifying the physical abuse of women, an accusation he is not unaccustomed to. It’s not the first time critics and activists have been bent on decoding or sensationalizing the messages of his work. However, according to Shields, the glorification of domestic violence and exploitation of women is definitely not his prerogative. As is usually the case with eyebrow-raising art that pushes boundaries, some get it, some don’t. “I don’t look at them as objects, I hold women in higher regard than anyone I know,” Shields explains. “I like dominance, I like control—I like women to be in control. I think that women are much more creative, much more powerful than anyone gives them credit to be.”
To further prove his point, Shields auctioned off three of the Morris photographs for $100,000 each and donated the proceeds to an abuse awareness charity.
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.
Blood, for instance, is a recurring theme for Shields. Though blood can be alarming to most people, Shields’ intentions are more intimate than shocking. Blood is powerful. Blood usually can’t whisper, by nature it screams. Shields recently created a painting made entirely out of human blood (donated by a slew of his friends) aptly called “The Blood Painting”. While Shields certainly isn’t the first photographer to use blood, he’s managed to make a niche out of sexualizing it.
Like legendary photographers Ellen Von Unwerth and Guy Bourdin, Shields unequivocally pushes the homogenized waking world towards a world of his own making; it seems like he has made a parallel universe of his own, full of fantasy and provocation, complicit with Alice in Wonderland and Henry Miller.
Tyler’s shoots and uncurbed concepts can be daringly spontaneous, like the time he drove with an actress to Ensenada [Mexico] in the middle of night, in the midst of a drug warzone, resulting in them being chased by ravenous dogs and shot at. Other times his shoots will be elaborately planned. “There’s a shoot right now that I’m working on and we are building a giant contraption for it. It will take a month to build, using mechanics and a motor, in the desert—all for one person, for one shot.”
In addition to his career as a photographer and video director, he has written (in sixty-five hours) three novels set to be published and adapted into scripts, and it’s only natural that Shields is set to direct and star in a potentially very bloody feature film EYES OF A DREAMER, a biopic about Charles Manson and the Sharon Tate murders.
“The way we’re going to do it is gonna be pretty wild. We are going to have the cast live together beforehand. We are rebuilding the original place,” says Shields. “At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to do the movie, I said I’d think about it. Then my assistant read the script and said the similarities between me and this guy [Manson] are weird. For instance, the Manson family had a thing where they’d break into people’s houses and turn things upside down on the walls and I used to do that when I was a kid. I have this catalogue of knowledge of how to break into things, I haven’t been doing that recently—but I know how to.”
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.”
What makes the lens master more intriguing is how forthright and unconventional he is. He lives outside the envelope. When I entered his house for the first time, I wondered if I was in some kind of haunted 1950’s B movie. All the windows are boarded up with plastic. He has two real human skeletons in his basement. A human brain under the sink. The fridge has human blood in it. In his bedroom there’s only a bed and a teddy bear with a ball gag in its mouth. His closet is just white t-shirts and black jackets.
“My skeletons aren’t in my closet, they’re on display when you walk in my house. If I died right now and someone went into my house wondering what they’d discover, there’s nothing secret,” he reveals. “Except there’s one small box that I have, and in that box is a letter that I received from a girlfriend of mine back in the day. It also has two Polaroid pictures and seventeen letters I’ve written to people in case I die. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got that’s hidden.”
Shields also has a formidable stockpile of photos he’s never shown to the world, which he refers to as The Vault. “It’s all the stuff that no one has seen. I’ll release something from The Vault two days ago that is four years old, so people really have no idea. I’ll hold on to stuff for years upon years. I have two entire video portraits that no one has seen.”
He is in a position now to photograph only people who interest him and that, he says, is precisely what he is doing. Shields has a predilection for forging friendships with the people he photographs. He admits, “Some of my best friends are people that I’ve worked with. I don’t like to just photograph somebody and then have that be it. I prefer to bring somebody in. It’s like a family in a sense, it’s weird. I keep a box of tissues in the glove compartment in my car because so many people open up and cry, it’s always been that way with me—has nothing to do with photography. They can tell me anything, I don’t judge anybody, I’m unaffected and sympathetic. I like to go deep quick.”
Those who know Shields well have hinted at his peculiar intuitive ability to tap into people’s minds and emotions. And not surprisingly the subject matter of the books he authored tackle telekinesis, brain manipulation and mind control. “It took me sixty-five hours to write them and twenty-nine years to live them. They are all myself. There are elements of me in them, parts of them are so exact that I could never say that it was me. The first book is about my childhood and my life growing up. How much of it is real, how much of it isn’t, I’ll never reveal.”
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. Tyler operates the old fashioned way: through sweat and blood—just not always his own. No matter what challenges he encounters, his untiring dedication to his craft triumphantly shows through. After all I’ve witnessed so far, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tyler had magical abilities, if he was in touch with another land, or if he’s just from another planet entirely. (LG)