(NSFW) Tyler Shields Interview: Blood. Guns. Women. Celebrities.

One of my favorite lines, from any book, from any time, comes from Norman Mailer. And I know he wasn’t the greatest spokesperson for planet Earth — he had a cancerous ego, was happily violent and sexist, and slowed by a strange machismo-mysticism (I mean, who really knows what his deal with contraceptives was?). But, still, he wrote it, and it’s a line that you can use for many things:

“When your best and worst motive agree on the same action, watch the juices flow.”

That could sum the whole of Mailer (perhaps sexual desire too?), but it could also explain something about Los Angeles photographer Tyler Shields’ work. Work that isn’t like much out there and vastly more graphic than anything we’ve showcased, it’s work that either you understand and admire, possibly love, or it’s work that you analyze and began to loathe. It’s very complicated to say the least.

Tyler Shields

And although it’s out-there, it’s no more violent, or sexually-charged, or bloody, than anything you see coming from our entertainment machine. They are portraits of actors/actresses doing what they usually do for Hollywood, HBO, or the Networks. His images are working, at their best, to dislodge portraiture from reality, reminding you that photography — even supposedly honest photography — still obscures the truth. But if they cause you any hesitation, remember it’s all makeup, toy guns, Mickey Mouse heads, and red corn syrup. It’s nasty and hilarious — not the ideal, lofty, up-in-the-clouds glitz and glamour but the nose-bleed afterparty, the concrete-glitter, the other side to imagination.

In this interview, Shields talks about his provocative approach to celebrity photography, explains his thoughts about getting emotion captured on camera, and reveals his greatest advice for photographers.

Shields talks

You don’t shy away from provocative subject matter, and I like that your work doesn’t play nice. How did you get your start in photography? 

I wanted to make movies and had started directing music videos and but then I had a girlfriend who cheated on me. I borrowed a camera took one photo and that photo changed my life. I am all about taking something negative and making it positive. I used that pain to fuel me, to push my life, and it did. I can’t imagine my life without photography. It is the best thing that happened to me in my life.

making it positive

How would you describe your style? 

I never really describe it. It’s hard to explain. Normally, when someone doesn’t know my work, they say, “So what kind of stuff do you shoot?” I just say I set people on fire and make them jump off buildings. The confusion usually ends the conversation, but the honest truth is that there are so many things I like to shoot and so many things I have shot. I suppose it’s just easier to say that than really getting into it because I don’t really like talking about it as much as I like doing.

confusion usually

When did you become confident of your abilities? Were you ever unsure your talents?

I knew nothing about photography. I had taken this one photo and everyone loved it — everyone wanted to have it.  So I thought well that was easy, I can do that again (it’s not easy). I believe if I set my mind to it I can do anything, although I will say at first I didn’t take it seriously. I just did it because it was fun to do. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no idea people even made a living at photography, but then I hit a moment when I realized that this can change my life, and I made that happen.

confident of your abilities

Blood, guns, knives, biting, punching, hunger, sex – there are plenty of violent elements shown in your work. Why do you think you’re interested in showing these elements in your images?

They are real. I love playing with reality in fiction. It makes you feel something. It affects you and it’s too real for some people, but the people who love it, really love it, and that makes me happy.

playing with reality

I would love to see what goes on through your pre-production meetings. How do you think up your shoots? 

HA! A few months ago I called everyone into the office and I said I need some space suits (tough to get). Everyone knew they were hard to get. One of my guys looked at me and said, “How many?” I replied, “15 to 3o”. You could hear water drop — the silence was golden. The next question: “When do we need them?” By Friday, it was Monday. That was an insane week, but we ended up getting 15 and some insane images. But one of my favorites was the human heart, but that’s a long awkward dangerous story I will leave for another time.

pre production meetings

Do you draw inspiration from other media?

Sometimes, when cops started pepper-spraying students, I thought it would be fun to see the students spraying the cops back. But the truth is I don’t watch the news. If I watch anything, it’s boxing, NASCAR, and House of Cards. Other than that, it’s movies or music. The last time I watched the news was the election, it was riveting.

pepper spraying

Your work reminds me of a line in Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost. “When your best and worst motive agree on the same action, watch the juices flow.” What does this line mean to you? Do you think it applies to your work?

Wow! Never heard that before, I love it. First of all, if you really want to push the boundaries, you have to be willing to push yourself. You can’t be scared of what others might think, who will be mad at you. It’s about you expressing your imagination, and your imagination can only run wild if you let it.

Harlot's Ghost

Your images also forced me to analyze the whole meaning of celebrity portraiture. The images reveal exactly what they mean to say: This is not real. This is not reality. These are actors doing what they’ve always done in cinema before. They are stills that could be pulled from any movie. What do you think about this? Have you ever been fascinated by reaction to your work?

You get it exactly. They are all playing a part for me. They are acting: still camera, film camera —  it doesn’t matter. You create a scene and actors will play in it. The reason I use actors is not because of their fame it’s because of their talent. They are willing to go further. They want to do the best they can and push themselves and they do. There is no such thing as fame. Fame is a lie. It’s all playing a part. I have seen the most famous people in the world go to the bathroom. They love, they hurt and the old saying in my house is: “No one is famous when you’re sitting in a dark room.” If you’re a good person, if you have talent, and if you want to be the best you can be, that interests me. And some people’s talent is being in front of a camera, and it’s a hard talent to have.

good person

But beneath all the spectacle, you still seem to have a hankering for softer emotions. These can usually be found in your close ups. “Ashley Greene Hand” is an example. But no matter which emotion, you seem in tune with the subtleties of facial expression. Do you think this right? If so, what advice could you give to other photographers about learning how to see emotion?

Well, there are two ways to go about this. You can capture emotion, which is being in the right place, the right time. For instance, the photo you are talking about of Ashley just so happened to be in the middle of the night, and the emotion was real so I captured it. Then there is the other side of it where you have to create the emotion. You have to make it happen and then once it happens you can run wild with it.

Ashley Greene Hand

Could you give us the most honest piece of advice you think every other photographer needs to hear?

A camera is an expensive paper weight if you don’t use it. Stop making excuses: one day I’ll have the right gear, one day I’ll have the right people to shoot, it’s easy once you shoot famous people, if I had this, if I had that. No, those are all excuses. Photography is a marathon not a sprint, and the only way to finish a marathon is to keep going.

expensive paper weight

Shields

Tyler

Be sure to check out all Tyler’s work on his website!