Writer: Raya Jalabi
Vampire motifs, women sprayed in blood or adorned with slabs of raw meat, guns and black eyes, Barbies with nosebleeds, an obese lady wearing nothing but a gigantic Hershey’s chocolate bar, Louboutin shoes burned down to their frames. Photographer Tyler Shields loves pushing buttons. Especially the ones that aren’t on his camera.
Tyler Shields doesn’t care what you think. The man who stuck raw steak on Mischa Barton’s face, shot a man with a gun and painted a 5-metre heart with the blood of 25 of his closest celebrity pals, really doesn’t care.
“I am all for people having a problem with my art. If somebody wants to have a problem with what I do, that’s up to them. It doesn’t affect me at all. I’m going to make whatever I want to make and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to look at it.”
Except that it’s almost impossible to look away from any of Shields’ works. His images are shocking, gory at best. And though you may not like them, it’s hard to deny their exhilarating power. From broken-down starlets to beaten-up Louboutins, Shields has a knack for bringing out the gaudy yet suggestive sensibilities in his subjects.
The 29-year-old celebrity photographer has carved out a comfortable niche as one of Los Angeles’ master provocateurs – a tough feat to accomplish, considering the city’s reputation for shock and awe. His varied artworks cause a rippling sensation every time they’re unleashed into the digital realm and his notoriety seems only to be hurtling forward, much to the dismay of his many detractors.
Tyler Shields was born and raised in Florida. As a young skater, he decided to start shooting videos of him and his friends, “just doing crazy shit” — something he’s carried into his professional career. Most of Tyler’s photoshoots involve his friends doing crazy shit, while his cameras roll.
His early career focussed on music videos rather than photography, a medium he didn’t pick up till he was 21 years old. But in addition to being a multi-faceted artist, Shields is also a shrewd marketer, one who capitalised early on social media.
“I saw that in youth culture, that was the highest currency you could have, being able to have imagery. It was like whoever had the best imagery kind of reigned supreme.” Clearly an important realisation in the making of his career. Despite being told by many industry giants that he was wasting his time by engaging in social media, Shields began propagating his images on the web, something which led to the cult following he enjoys today.
Today, Shields maintains an active website and blog where he trickles out his latest works. He’s also an avid tweeter. His online presence is reflective of the energy he pours into his work. Shields is constantly working. This May will see one of his busiest periods to date. Not only is he opening an exhibition in Los Angeles, ‘Mouthful’, he’s debuting his sophomore novel, ‘The Dirty Side Of Glamour’, and launching a new documentary television series on US channel, Sy Fy, which will follow him around as he, you guessed it, “does crazy shit” with his friends.
There’s nothing traditional about Tyler Shields, except for his almost childish proclivity for pulling pranks and shocking people. He has frequently been on the receiving end of some vitriol from a public not necessarily receptive of his work, this maybe because he seems to enjoy shock for shock’s sake. “The shock factor is… it’s definitely a happy accident. This is fun and creative to me.”
A lot of this stems from Shields’ use of hypersexual, and occasionally violent themes in his work. He almost exclusively shoots young, attractive. Hollywood actors and actresses, often scantily clad and sometimes dripping in fake blood. One photo that drew a particular amount of heat was of Glee (the American musical comedy series) actress, Heather Morris taken in 2011.
Morris suggested a “bruised-up Barbie” theme for their shoot, according to Shields. “And I said… we’ll make you into a perfect Barbie with a black eye. And you know, it started all this outrage.” Anti-domestic violence campaigners and groups were furious that Shields would portray a woman in a scene of domestic abuse.
He received almost 25,000 letters from people angered by the nature of his work, which prompted him to auction off some of the photos he took and donate the proceeds to a group that helps stop violence against women.
Despite this, Tyler still stands by his decision to shoot Morris with a black eye. “The idea that a woman has never had a black eye, that you should never show it, that’s bullshit. … To me, women are very, very powerful people. And I love the illusion that they’re not. The illusion in society that women are weak is the biggest joke played on the world. Women are tough as shit… women box, women do marathons, women do everything that men do… When I was a kid, my mum had a black eye. I’ve seen real women with real black eyes. I’ve photographed a woman with a real black eye because she got into a fight and nobody made a stink about it. But I put a fake one on Heather Morris and I was the devil.”
Although his professed reverence for women might not be immediately clear because of the sexual undertones in his work featuring women, he is insistent. “If you ask any woman who’s ever shot with me if she felt empowered when she’s shot with me or if she felt empowered by the pictures, she would say yes.”
This is perhaps due to his collaborative nature. His subjects will often bounce around ideas with him before shoots. He is known for establishing close relationships with his subjects, something that comes in handy for his more outrageous ideas. In 2010, twenty-five friends donated their blood for a new Shields’ project, which grew to be one of his wildest yet: a giant heart painted on canvas, in blood.
“You know, I thought, what a great way to just have something that can exist forever that we all created together. That thing is like a Petri dish of DNA… And the beautiful thing is that this painting will exist in fifty and a hundred years… And their name will be right there next to it. There’s something quite romantic about that.”
Sure, in a twisted kind of way. Though the piece was on display in one of his previous galleries, what most people don’t know is that Shields had enough blood left over to make a second painting, which no one’s ever seen. It’s not a heart, but Shields won’t yet give away what the painting is exactly.
Blood. Black eyes. Guns. Is there anything left for Tyler Shields? With every new performance and photograph, he seems to lessen his potential to shock. “That’s the question. That’s the question that we ask. And the answer is, there’s a lot more I can do.” It seems almost certain Shields will dare to do something even more radical next. We’re just not sure we want to be in the room when he does.