Interview by Paul Salfen
Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1982, Shields didn’t get into photography until 2003 – but then published a book just two years later. Since then, his work has been shown in exhibitions all over the world. After starting a decade ago directing music videos, he moved on to photos and has done striking work with the likes of starlets Emma Roberts, Lindsay Lohan, Ashley Greene, and Abigail Breslin.
His next endeavor is film. He directed the thriller Final Girl and has another, Outlaw, that is finished, and another called The Wild Ones in production.
In between those, though, his bread and butter are these art gallery exhibitions like the one currently at the Samuel Lynne Galleries in the Design District in Dallas. “I actually lived here a bit when I was a kid,” he reveals. “There was a skate park that I used to come to Eisenberg’s. So Arlo Eisenberg, who was a big pro skater, was a friend of mine, so I uscalleded to come see him and I met JD [Miller, the gallery owner and fellow artist] and them and they wanted me to come do a gallery and I met Gina [Ginsburg, entrepreneur and Dallas socialite] and I just kept coming back.”
But it’s not just a full gallery he desires while in town. “I like to eat about my body weight in steak. I’ve eaten enough steak to feed a small army at this point,” he laughs. “Literally last night I got off the plane and I said, “Steakhouse. Let’s go!” We went to this place, Al Biernat’s. Gina takes me there every time.”
Shields then looks around at his work surrounding him and begins to recall the great moments with a proud look on his face.
AMFM Magazine: I can’t imagine what it takes to get one of these images to happen, much less a gallery – or a book – of them. Which shot pained you the most?
Tyler Shields: Oh, man. The Marie Antoinette shots took a long time because we built everything. The sets, they made the champagne glasses, the wigs – I had a team of 20 women making wigs. Then we took sledgehammers to it at the end. That one took the most time. The most interesting one was the KKK one [where a naked black man appears to be hanging a Klan member]. I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone this: when we were doing it, we were doing it in a swamp and I’m in the swamp as well but you can’t see me because there are all of these bushes because there was a hill above it. But there was a family hiking and so they’re hiking by and my assistant and everyone is hiding in the bushes so they can’t be seen in the shot. I’m literally up to here in the swamp and I see the guy and the guy holding the rope says, “There’s a dude up there. What do I do?” and I said, “Act natural.” It was so ridiculous that I said that that he just didn’t do anything and so he’s still holding him up. Because if he lets the rope go, the guy is just going to fall down. So the guy is hiking and he looks down on us and he looks down and he goes, “Come on! Come on!” and he’s got kids out there. So somewhere out there there’s a guy that got an eyeful of us taking that but not me – just that moment. Imagine him calling the park ranger: “I don’t know what is happening but…”
AMFM: You’ve got a lot of people talking about your work with each new set. How do you continue to top yourself?
TS: Well, when we did “The Dirty Side of Glamour” my friend said, “Well, we did it. You’re not going to top that.” We did the next thing and he said, “Alright, you’re not going to top that.” And now he doesn’t say that anymore. He just says, “OK, do that. You’ll figure it out.” There are so many ideas. I had the idea for the Marie Antoinette stuff so many years ago but it just takes time to get it together sometimes – like the orchid shot. It took three years for me to get that right – the color and orchid.
AMFM: How many frames would you have to go through to get that shot?
TS: Oh, no…there’s only, like, two. Once we had it – I probably spent 30 minutes getting her just to play with the tongue before I even took the picture. And then shoot a couple and that’s it.
AMFM: So where do you find your inspiration? Do you find it just walking around and you just see stuff different than, say, I do?
TS: One hundred percent. It’s interesting because people say, “Oh, you must have seen this from this” and they’re always trying to connect it to something but I just…I remember with this one there was a girl I was shooting and it looked nothing like this but she was just blow-drying her hair and I thought it would be funny if she put it in her mouth and was blow-drying her hair. Those two things had nothing to do with each other at all, but that’s just what I see when I see that and then with the car one I always loved the idea of the woman kind of crushing the car but I saw a Lambo and a woman walking by with her dog and I thought, “Oh, what if the woman could just take her heels and smash the car?”
AMFM: It is amazing how many images we see and ideas we have in our heads in a day and sometimes it’s hard to tell where the inspiration comes from after a while, right?
TS: Of course. And now we’re so inundated with images. When I started out, I didn’t know much about photography or photographers and most of them didn’t have websites or a photography book collection so every once in a while you would see a Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, or Vogue cover but you wouldn’t see stuff like this but now every day so many photographs are just posted alone on Instagram, so there’s just so, so much out there.
AMFM: Is it interesting to see when people post and repost your photos and what they say about them?
TS: Yeah. It’s really cool to see when people repost what they actually say about it and the ones that take on their own life. I’ll get messages like, “Oh, Gigi Hadid posted this photo.” And she doesn’t even know that I took it but they’re just posting it because they love the photo.
AMFM: And some become memes. Is that an honor?
TS: Yeah! I think if you make something that gets turned into a meme you’re hitting a certain point of the zeitgeist, which is fun. I’ve seen the ballet one and the one of the girl that’s got the really crazy attitude and there’s like 20 memes for that one, which I think is awesome.
AMFM: In your book, the celebrities aren’t credited underneath the images. Most people would want to use their names to help create interest but you don’t do that.
TS: You could take a photo of Kate Moss and they would buy it because it’s Kate Moss but the idea for me is to use people that create the photo I want to create and they’re acting in it but it’s not about who’s in it. That’s when you really hit the best thing. [Points to an image of a naked woman covering herself but with no face shown]That girl is an actress. I’m not going to say who she is but she was just playing that part. It doesn’t matter who it is – it’s about the photo. That being said, I’ve shot people where it’s all about them but the stuff in here, it’s not the goal.
AMFM: Which photographers influenced you?
TS: It’s weird because like I said, I knew who Annie Leibovitz was, Ansel Adams, but when I started doing the auctions, that’s when I started to understand the power of Helmut Newton, the power of [Robert] Mapplethorpe, Irving Penn, [Richard] Avedon, and people started comparing to me to Helmut Newton back in the day and I thought, “OK, let me look this guy up” and he’s a character. He’s hilarious…one of the funniest people. As you see what these people do – we’re awarded so much more now. Helmut was great and he worked for such a long time and did commercial stuff but didn’t want to do that anymore and he just started shooting for himself and that wasn’t really a thing back then. You couldn’t make a living selling prints in the ‘60s and ‘70s whereas if he was doing it today, he wouldn’t need to work for anybody.
AMFM: But now you can do it and you don’t have to shoot Super Bowl commercials or anything.
TS: Without those guys like Mapplethorpe…those guys forged the way for this kind of value in photography – which I obviously appreciate! [Laughs]
AMFM: You have a lot of aspiring photographers looking up to you. What advice would you give them?
TS: You know, one of my assistants – I explained it to him like this: when you start out in photography, you see what you can be – but it takes time. You could pick up a camera today and you could copy an Instagram style and have a bunch of followers on Instagram – you could have 10 million followers on Instagram and not sell one print. You just have to understand who you’re making the work for. You’re making the work for a gallery, for a wall. I have some photos that may not get the most likes on Instagram but people buy them. You have to figure out what you want and make the work that people want. I’ve talked to a lot of people that say that’s what they want but they’re afraid that their mom won’t like it or they’ll be judged for it and that’s the worst.
AMFM: And sometimes you just need to get out of LA and see what everyone else says about your work.
TS: Yeah! I just did a show in like this Ohio and we had 800 people come on opening night and they’re excited I’m coming there.
AMFM: I know I’d never be a subject of yours but how do you find the subjects? Do you just look at someone and know that’s who you want to use next?
TS: It’s funny because you’ll meet someone sometimes now but it’s usually a referral. “Oh my God, you gotta shoot my boyfriend,” “You gotta shoot my friend,” and sometimes people are emailing you and sending you photos. Sometimes I’ll see someone and it doesn’t look anything like what I would do with them but that’s part of the fun of it. You have to see the potential of what someone can be rather than who they are. You can use anybody for anything if the theme fits.
AMFM: And now it looks like your next medium is film. Of course we saw Final Girl, but you’ve got a few pending.
TS: I’m working on film that will be done I’ll say at the end of February and I’m working on a script that my company got that was on the blacklist – so I’m working on those now and I’m doing a new project with [Marilyn] Manson. He’s a wild man. He’s funny – but the nicest guy. Literally we talk every day. He’s the funniest texter. Just ridiculous.
AMFM: What do you want people to get out of this exhibition when they walk out?
TS: My biggest thing with making this type of stuff is I want to allow someone to form their own opinion. I had some people ask – one in an interview – “You did this because of this, this, and this” – they were so sure of it and I said “I’m not going to argue with you” and they said, “Because I’m right” and I said, “No, it’s not because you’re right and that’s your opinion.” I make stuff and I won’t think it’s controversial at all and people will freak out and I’ll say, “What’s the big deal? It’s a flower! I don’t know why you think it looks like something else. To me it’s just a flower!” But that’s part of the fun – you allow the interpretation of it.” When you start to explain it, you take away the fun of it because the conversation is why you make it. When the KKK image came out, this guy came up to me and said, “This image really affects me” and I said, “OK, that’s awesome.” And he goes, “Yeah, it’s crazy that the guy is saving the guy” and I hadn’t heard anyone say that that before. If I had said beforehand, “No, this is what it means and this is what you have to think about it,” there’s no fun in that. You have to leave mystery.
The Tyler Shields: “Provocateur” exhibition is on view at the Samuel Lynne Galleries in Dallas through February 11, 2017.