Tyler Shields is the perfect storm. Unapologetic and fearless, this LA-based artist is a favorite of Hollywood’s elite and worldwide collectors alike. His new book Provocateur hasn’t left its #1 position as a New York Times Bestseller since the release, and his recent opening at Samuell Lynne Galleries in Dallas drew over 1,000 attendees. We got a chance to speak with him about his inspirations, process, and why he destroyed that $100,000 Birkin.
E: How long have you been with Samuell Lynne Galleries?
T: I started working with them in 2012. Provocateur is my second exhibition there.
E: Your current exhibition at Samuel Lynne Gallery and new book Provocateur explores a large variety of different subjects, how do you find inspiration for your work?
T: Well it’s interesting because I have the book Provocateur coming out, and this was one of the first singings and showings that I had done for it. I wanted to have variety, featuring a few pieces from a few different series. So you have the Chanel acid next to the Decadence from the Marie Antoinette era. Those go hand in hand to me, it was about finding a nice balance. The show was designed with color in mind, it was the first show that I’ve done without any black and white pieces. I wanted it to be when you walked in everything you saw was incredibly vibrant.
E: Can you expand on some of the works exhibited in the show?
T: One of my favorites was an image I’ve worked on for a long time, the orchid. I went through a couple of years just playing with different colors, film stocks, and different cameras before finding a look that demonstrated the color in the way that I wanted. That photo was the first example of what I was going to start doing with that color.
E: I find that to be a fascinating juxtaposition from some of your other photoshoots with celebrities and people where many times the spontaneity of the process is what make the images so powerful, your experimentation here really exposes another side of you as an artist.
T: The thing with shooting people is truly capturing a moment in time with them, where the place and date contribute to the image. Photographing someone on a Thursday would look different to any other day, so with people it’s focused on capturing a moment in time you’ll never get again. I always say to my assistants that photography now is divided into documentation and imagination. Finding a way to create a fantasy and let imagination take over, that’s the real goal, that’s what that entire show was about.
E: So I know that in the past you were doing music videos before photography, how have your past experiences affected or molded how you think about photography and the process?
T: I think that a photographer’s work is a frame-by-frame representation of their experiences or how they view things they have imagined or experienced in their lives. I grew up riding motorcycles and skating, and I was never afraid of anything. I think that comes across in my work. I have friends that didn’t do anything like that and their work is completely different, I can’t imagine making the stuff that they make and vice versa. Photography is really fascinating because you’re telling a story, and even though I’m not in the pictures, I’m in every one of them.
E: A lot of your shoots look too insane to be real and people often wonder if there is any Photoshop involved, especially the images of Julia Roberts and your lovely girlfriend Francesca Eastwood, what happens behind the scenes?
T: I never use Photoshop, everything you see in my photos is real, and that’s funny because it’s why we started doing more behind-the-scenes videos and photos. It’s an interesting time we live in now, because everyone can take a picture and manipulate it on their phone. So the first thing people think when they see these pictures is that it must be Photoshop.
E: So the behind-the-scenes images really bring more perspective and context to each photo?
T: Exactly, especially for those that collect my work, it’s important to have a look at the process, from the Airplane shot, to the Birkin, to the people jumping off buildings…it makes it a lot crazier to see that it’s a real plane and someone actually jumped off a building and that all brings intensity to the story.
E: I can definitely see that, from looking at all of the photos and the stories behind them, what was one of your most memorable shoots and the story behind it?
T: The airplane story is a really fun one, it started when I met with my friend Mike Hoeting, who is a big toy designer in Ohio, and he had built a working plane with his bare hands, and asked me if I wanted to go flying with him. Of course I said, “yeah!” Another buddy of his had an old prop plane and said that we could shoot with it, so we all went out there. The perfect shot I had in mind for this would be a woman running from the plane flying over her head in a cornfield, so we decided to do it. To get there, I had to fly in the plane my buddy had built and land in a cornfield to get down there with the other plane alongside us. It’s an old plane, so it takes about 15 minutes to loop around, so we were waiting until it got in sight then BAM. One photo. One frame of that shot and we got it. I knew that I got it the moment I took it. After that we radioed up to the other plane and went about our day.
E: And the rest is history, right? Just another day flying in a plane your buddy made with his bare hands. So how do you find the perfect balance between documentation or photographing fame/celebrities and fine art?
T: You know, I don’t believe in fame or photographing fame as people just because they’re famous. For me, I’m interested in talent. If I photograph an actor or actress, I want to make them act and put them in a character. I can’t recall any time I’ve photographed someone when they weren’t in any type of a character or a different mode from who they really are. My subjects come through in the photographs under the guise of a character or a series. Especially now with Instagram and camera phones, you’re never going to take a more personal photo of someone than they can take of themselves, so you have to figure out new ways to get past that. People are taking so many selfies of themselves, that when you put up a camera now they immediately pose for you. Fortunately for me, it works perfectly with what I’m doing.
E: I find your use of characters to photograph people very interesting, it almost seems like an antithesis of the work of Cindy Sherman, where she used characters to adopt different personas, you use characters with actors to bring more of them out.
T: Absolutely. It’s funny when you give someone a character, most people that are playing a character are going to be more honest to who they really are because they feel safer.
E: That reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
T: There you go. So true. That’s why I work with people I’ve met, you can’t always know a celebrity just by the stuff they put out, getting personal makes for great shots.
E: On to your destruction of the 100,000 Birkin bag, how did that idea come about?
T: I didn’t know what a Birkin bag was, and I was doing a shoot with a woman that had a whole room full of Birkins, and I was wondering why all these bags were in these bulletproof glass cases. Like, what are these things?! At the time, I had done this thing with Louis Vuitton when they were burning all of the unsold bags, so I had burned one too to see what it looked like. Then I said, ok, let’s get a Birkin! Obviously not realizing how difficult it was to get one. 8 months later, it came in and the first thing we did was chainsaw it, and nothing happened to it! It was cut in half, but it was still upright and retained its shape, so then we set it on fire. It didn’t last after that.
E: That was a fairly controversial shoot, by now your name has almost become synonymous with controversy because you tackle some extremely delicate subjects while still being respectful of the history behind them. Which of your works has caught the most heat?
T: The Birkin shoot definitely caused some drama, but I would say that the lynching photo globally definitely caused the most heat. The photo really took on a life of its own and now just become its own entity. And I went through a whole variety of work, but there was never a moment where I thought, I’m not going to put this out because it would upset people. I got 5000 death threats, being on MSNBC, and many people telling me I’m an awful person to my face because that work upset them. Some people hate it and some people love it, a lot of people can change if the public’s reaction to a work is negative, and it’s not like I seek it out. I don’t aim to be controversial, the honest truth is that I just make things and do things because I want to.
E: You can see that in your work, especially that you use art to challenge people. There has to be a balance between light and dark subjects.
T: That’s what I want my work to do, one of my collectors who has been around when some of the legendary photographers like Richard Avedon were going through their controversies said he has been waiting for this generation’s photographers to push boundaries and challenge people like they did. The best thing he said was that he saw me as a contemporary artist that takes photographs. I’ve watched their works and my works at auction, and get put on a list by Sotheby’s, and that just drives me even more to create and push boundaries. When I take photos, I don’t think about selling it or exhibiting it, I just aim to product the best work that I can.
E: To get these images, you often put yourself in dangerous positions and have even ended up in the hospital, is there anything you’re afraid of?
No, I can say I’m not afraid of anything in my life. But if I had to say anything, I would be afraid to live the other way. I would never let myself do that, so there is no real fear there, but I can’t imagine living without being able to do what I want. I know friends what live to make work for other people, they never push themselves outside of that. So many kids are taught that you go to work, you clock in at 8 and leave at 5, and that’s it. I work 24 hours a day, there is no “clocking out” when you’re creating, and no one pays me to do these things. When my new assistant started working for me, I told him when taking a photo, to try and imagine that someone is paying you a million dollars to take it. And I asked him, if he knew that, would he put in more effort, less effort, or the same? Answer the same, and you’re right on track. When I take a photo, I don’t think about selling it, I just make the work I’m going to make. Then if I’m doing a gallery and going through the selection process, that’s when that comes in. Shooting on film and blowing up cars isn’t cheap, so I have to make money, but it’s not what drives me. The freedom to create whatever you want and whenever you want, you’re the richest person in the world.
E: What was a massive life event that defined you?
T: I died and came back to life, I’ve never shared this story outside my friends and family, but it happened when I was just a kid, about 12 years old. I fell about 50 feet on my head, died, and fell into a coma. And when I woke back up, I had an understanding that I feel like a lot of people don’t get. I realized that everything is temporary and you can die anytime, there is no warning sign, there is no anything. So anything that you want to do, you need to do it. Be the best at it, and live how you want to live and never live how someone else wants you to live. Because the biggest regret is, “I wasn’t the person I wanted to be, I was the person somebody else wanted me to be.”
I’ve been very particular my whole life, and people want to make you feel bad because you’re particular, if you’re different people want to shame you for it. When I woke up from the coma, I lost the ability to care what anybody like that thought for the rest of my life. It really makes you understand a different side of life, knowing it is all temporary, so why waste time? Whatever you want to do, do it, be happy, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it.
E: What does your family think about your work?
T: I did a lot of stuff when I was a kid, like I didn’t go to high school. I traveled around a lot when I was a kid, I was a skater in 2003 with the Tony Hawk tour. When I started doing photography, it wasn’t anything different. They said I succeeded in everything else I wanted to do, so I’ll succeed in this. And when I first started, I had nothing. I had no money. Zero. And it was great. I remember living on 1 In N Out burger a day and take 3 or 4 pictures at each shoot so I could pack 5 or 6 shoots onto a roll of film. When I look back on that, I wasn’t mad about it at the time, and I’m not mad about it now. It’s just what you gotta do.
You can see Tyler Shields’ Provocateur exhibition at Samuell Lynne Galleries Dallas. Visit their website for more information on opening hours.
Follow Tyler’s incredible work for behind-the-scenes photos and videos below