Most people first hear about—or see—the work of photographer Tyler Shields via the controversy it drums up. That doesn’t bother the artist, who has photographed a number of ranking members of young Hollywood—including Lindsay Lohan, Mischa Barton, Emma Roberts, Aaron Paul, Demi Lovato, Juno Temple, and Shiloh Fernandez. “I’m an artist. I’m not a politician. I’ll tell you exactly what I think, and I’ll do exactly what I want to do. And I’m the most honest f-cking person you’ll ever meet, because I put it out there for the whole world to see,” said Shields.
In fact, Lohan, Barton, and Glee’s Heather Morris have all made national news for their collaborations with Shields. “Most of those [shots] I took in my living room, which is amazing, because I can literally make world news just sitting in my living room,” Shields told ELLE. “[Then] what happens is people go, ‘Who is this guy?’ and they look me up, and they see my work as a whole and take notice. The controversy just puts a name to the images.”
To put a face with the name and images for ourselves, we caught up with Shields at his Los Angeles one-day exhibition for Mouthful—where thousands of people from all over the west coast (and the world) flocked to the Ace Gallery for Shields’ newest collection—and chatted about panda masks, glitter, axes, and military-grade pepper spray—all typical ingredients for a Tyler Shields photoshoot. Take note: Shields is prepping to make his directorial debut with a thriller, Final Girl, starring Abigail Breslin.
ELLE: Do you remember your first photograph?
Tyler Shields: I was a music video director at the time, and I had this girlfriend who basically cheated on me with a guy who was a photographer. He took pictures of cats and shit, you know what I mean? He just called himself a photographer. I took all of her stuff and boxed it up. And the last things there were two pairs of shoes and a hanger in an empty closet. So, I borrowed my roommate’s camera, took one picture and said, “Oh, when you develop the film, it’s the last picture on the roll. Just give me that.” He gave it to me, and people went crazy for it. Magic, the fashion trade show company, ended up buying it and using it for their ad campaign. That’s how I was able to buy my first camera.
ELLE: There’s an illusionist quality to your work—do people assume Photoshop-tampering?
TS: I don’t use any Photoshop. So, everything that you see is real. And because of that, there is a crazy story for almost every single picture. And people can feel that. They may not know what the story is, but they’re like, “Something’s f-cking going on here.”
ELLE: How do you do that?
TS: What I like to do is create an environment and allow people to react to that environment. Sometimes they won’t know what we’re doing or where we’re going or anything like that. I like them to know nothing or as little as humanly possible, because the worst thing people can do is think.
ELLE: You have repeat celebrity offenders as subjects—how do you explain that?
TS: I’ll have people say to me, “I just went and did this movie, I need to come back and shoot, so I can release myself.” It’s almost a therapeutic thing for someone; I provide a service and the service is freedom. I give you a creative license to be completely free and to let your mind and your body go wherever it needs to go. Some people who don’t know me are terrified of me—they’re scared—because they look at my work and think, “Oh, this is so crazy… how did they do that?” Then when people meet me, they get addicted to shooting with me, because as an actor, they love it.
ELLE: How physically engaging—even dangerous—are your sets?
TS: When I was first starting to shoot a lot of people, I would make them run around the block or I would yell and we would do stretches. I would warm people up. I wasn’t like, “Let me fix these three little hairs, so you kind of look perfect.” I was more interested in, “Let’s see what’s in there.” “Let’s get inside,” because that’s what interests people.
ELLE: Your subjects go to such lengths to achieve the vision—literally axing down payphones, cradling glitter on the tongue, falling several feet in a panda mask, and using military-grade pepper spray—what’s the ultimate pay-off?
TS: You want people to look at it and be like, “How did this happen?” “How did you do this?” “What happened to the Panda?” “What happened right after this?” “Did he break his leg?” “Did he smash to the ground?” Some times people get hurt. Sometimes people get smacked down.
ELLE: Do you also do death-defying stunts as the photographer?
TS: I will go very far to make things difficult, so they are exactly how I want. I will hang off the side of a bridge and have four people holding my legs to get the shot to be perfect. I remember I was doing a shot not too long ago where I was being hung out of a f-cking window on the fourteenth floor of the Sunset Tower Hotel, so that I could get a shot of an actor hanging out the window. My whole body was out the window. No one was holding me. My legs were tied to a couch. I go far to get the world to bend to where I want it to be.
ELLE: And yet, you’ve caught flack for pushing too far—specifically those who accuse your images of glorifying violence against women. What’s your thought?
TS: People automatically assume that if a girl is in that position or in that situation, that it is violence against her and that she’s weak, and “Oh, he’s making girls look weak.” Girls and women are the most powerful creatures on this planet. Without them, nothing exists. Period.
ELLE: You’re unconventional in your methods and in your success—any words of wisdom to share?
TS: My thought on it has always been this, if you are a person who can find the value before there is worth, then you will always be ahead of the curve and you will always be successful.