In Conversation with Celebrity Photographer Tyler Shields
May 24, 2017 by
Remember those controversial photos portraying Lindsay Lohan as a blood-covered, boyfriend-murdering vampire? How about the images of Clint Eastwood’s daughter next to a burning Birkin bag? The man behind those infamous pictures is Tyler Shields, and he’s just launched a new collection of photographs titled Provocateur at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles. We caught up with the daring photographer to learn about the first time he picked up a camera, how he deals with criticism and what it’s like to shoot with A-list celebrities.
AZ: You didn’t start out as a photographer—can you tell us a bit about how you arrived at your current profession?
TS: I picked up a camera when I was 15 but it was a video camera, and I started filming everything—when I say everything I mean me getting my friends to do crazy stuff and I was filming it. The fun part about this was there was no YouTube, no social media and no one really had video cameras. All that filming led me to create skate videos and music videos and got me out to California which is where I took my first photograph.
AZ: In your opinion, what is it about photography that distinguishes it from other artistic media? What are you able to achieve through photos that you can’t get out of, say, painting or sculpture?
TS: I think art is about giving the viewer a feeling. Of course, you can do that with paintings and sculptures. I have been fortunate enough to see my work hanging on a wall with a Picasso and a Warhol and even a room full of Dali sculptures so I can see the argument that they are all the same, just each a unique way to tell a story. For me personally, photography is the best way to tell that story. I can create a shoot and make it look like the photo was taken 50 years ago or 50 years from now. The power in that is endless.
AZ: Shooting with high-profile actors and icons of various other industries essentially guarantees that your work will be ruthlessly scrutinized. Do you feel that this affects your work in any way or have you become immune to it?
TS: No one ever made a statue for a critic. I am immune to it. The feeling I have about it is that a compliment and an insult are the same thing. Insults just take longer to write; of course, when you make something, especially with so many photographers now, they are going to look at your work and not see it that way. When I look at other peoples photos, even if it is not the way I would do it, I understand and respect anyone who has the gumption to pick up a camera and dedicate their life to it. I would like to see less photographer on photographer hate because photography is not a competition.
AZ: How would you characterize your relationship with people you photograph? Do you typically give a lot of specific directions during a shoot or is it more of a collaborative effort?
TS: Most of them are my friends and most of the time I give exact direction but the great thing about working with the same people so many times is what they bring to it. I have worked with a lot of the people I shoot for years, and in those cases, I don’t have to give specific direction, there’s just an understanding between us. I have some very talented people who have great ideas. I would be crazy not to use them.
AZ: You often put your subjects in unusual and potentially uncomfortable situations—is it difficult to gauge just how far someone will let you go to get the shot you want?
TS: I can’t say I have really had people say “No, I can’t do that.” There have been times people have certainly been scared, but that’s why I like to use actors—they want to be pushed.
AZ: Dream shoot location?
TS: Iceland is up next on the list.
AZ: What are some of the key concepts behind your latest body of work, Provocateur?
TS: Provocateur is a mix of work—everything ranging from a pregnant man down to a 1960s Pan Am flight. It spans a weird world, that’s for sure.
AZ: What do you anticipate that the reaction will be to these new images?
TS: I never try and guess which images people will love or hate because it’s rare you will guess right. It’s also more fun just to see what they say. What is fun is to guess which image will sell more than others. I only do editions of 3 so in one night I can see a print sell out and that’s it, I won’t see it again in a gallery. That’s always fascinating.
AZ: What advice do you have for aspiring photographers and other artists?
TS: This is a marathon, not a sprint; you have to dedicate to it. Don’t look at others and cast blame when things don’t work out right away. It happens to everyone; you just have to stay with it.
AZ: What’s next for you after the release of Provocateur?
TS: I am working on my next book, and I am in the new Christie’s auction in London in May. Then I have a London gallery show later in the year with Imitate Modern.
AZ: Go-to spots for eating and seeing art in L.A.?
TS: The Oaks Gourmet Market and the Getty Museum.
AZ: How can we keep up with you?
Tyler’s exhibit Provocateur is on view at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles May 11 – June 12, 2017.
All images courtesy of Tyler Shields