Even if you’re not familiar with the name Tyler Shields, you’ve no doubt seen this edgy photographer’s work. He’s had some of Hollywood’s most talked-about celebrities, including Lindsay Lohan, Dianna Agron and Zachary Quinto in front of his lens. No stranger to controversy, his “Busted Barbie” shoot – featuring Glee‘s Heather Morris sporting a black eye – resulted in his receiving over 25,000 death threats and his most recent shoot with actress Mischa Barton and a slab of beef is once again stirring up the pop culture pot. We were able to sit down and chat with Tyler, taking a break in preparations for another one of his truly unique, cutting edge shoots, to talk about his inspirations, his future plans and the details of the recent, headline-making photo shoot that’s got animal lovers up in arms.
Socialite Life: Let’s start out by talking about the shoot with Mischa Barton. How did you end up working with her?
Tyler Shields: Well, (Mishca) had a fan club out of, I think, Brazil and they were emailing me every day for a month and I shot a band called Deep Valley, an amazing band, and their manager is good friends with Mischa and he said to me, “I’ve been getting emails from these fans about you shooting Mischa.” And I said, “I’ve been getting emails from these fans about shooting Mischa!” He told me, I talked to Mischa about doing it and she’s down.” And I said, “Let’s do it.”
There’s lots more of our interview after the jump!
SL: Mischa does have a voracious fan base, doesn’t she?
TS: It’s crazy! It’s awesome…but I think it’s great.
SL: Have you already gotten a lot of flack over these photos?
TS: Yeah! (Laughs) I got a lot of death threats from the Heather Morris (photos) and you know, I was like, “No way, no way that this will be crazier than that!” because people thought that (the Morris shoot) was a domestic violence thing, and this was just meat. Well, vegetarians and vegans take that s**t so seriously…and I had one person wrote me and tell me that they were going to cut my flesh off, cook it and feed it to me so that I would know the pain that the cows that I killed faced.
SL: Well, I figured you weren’t going to be on PETA’s Christmas card list after that.
TS: No! I mean, here’s the thing. I have no problem with PETA. I’m all for animals being treated well, you know what I mean? But, at the same time, I eat meat, I do. I eat steak. I’m from the South, I’ve eaten it my whole life and I don’t think I’m going to become a vegetarian anytime soon so, you know, it’s my thing as a human being…I have the freedom to do that and they have the freedom to not. It’s a bit much for people to try to tell me they’re going to kill me because I had a steak.
SL: When you do a do a celebrity shoot, like the one with Mischa, do you collaborate on the concept with the subject or is it all you?
TS: A lot of the times, how it works is like…(with Mischa) we met up. We went to In-N-Out. And she said, “What do you want to do? What’s your idea?” and I said “I don’t want to tell you, we’ll just go.” She said “okay” and I said “perfect”. Some of the time…well, to be honest with you, at that moment I didn’t know what I wanted to do – and it wasn’t until we were done eating that I was like, “I want to put steak on her face. I want her to be eating raw meat.” And so, it kind of works like that – and then, what happens is after I work with people, they might be like, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do something like this” and then we take that and elaborate or I say, “I’ve got this project I want to do and I want you to do it. Let’s make it happen.”
SL: Has anyone ever said “no” to an idea you proposed for a shoot?
TS: Not really, I mean, there was this one time – and this is an interesting story – I shot this guy Scott Mechlowicz – he’s an actor. He was in Euro Trip and a bunch of stuff. One day, we were up on the top of this building and I said, “I want you to do this” and I showed him what I wanted him to do and – you know, it was pretty crazy – and he nearly vomited at the idea of it. It was that crazy to him. And it was a physical thing, it was something he would be doing that was pretty dangerous. And I was like, “Okay, cool” and we changed it up and did something else. That was a long time ago…and that was when I realized that there’s things that I have no problem doing as far as difficult stuff is concerned – I mean, we were 25 floors up and I was hanging and basically, in his mind, he saw me jump off a 25 story building and he nearly threw up from that. And I realized then that everyone has their phobias – some people have height, you know what I mean? I realized then that you really have to understand what people’s limits are and what they’re afraid of.
SL: What’s the craziest thing you’ve gotten someone to do for a shoot?
TS: You know, that actually depends on your perception of crazy. I recently dragged Zachary Quinto 35 miles per hour tied up behind a truck, on his stomach, down a gravel road – and someone would say that was crazy. But, then I had Garret Dillahunt jump off a bridge 25 feet onto the ground, just into a dirt pile. Some people think heights are the craziest thing and some people think putting someone in a bathtub full of ice for 30 minutes until they cry is the craziest thing. It all depends, I guess.
SL: Let me ask you a little about your background. How did you get started in photography?
TS: I started out directing music videos when I was 17 and I did videos for Ghostface Killah and Corrupt and a few rappers and bands and stuff. (After) a girlfriend cheated on me, I took a picture of our closet – it was empty except for two pairs of shoes and that picture became really famous on MySpace back in the day. And people started asking me to take their picture and I was like, “People do this? This is like a real thing?”
SL: Did you ever have any formal training in photography?
TS: No, I didn’t even go to high school!
SL: Were you influenced by any other photographers?
TS: No, it’s funny because I didn’t know anything about photography until I was already making a living at it. I think maybe I knew who Annie Liebowitz was, but I think I only knew who she was because of Almost Famous, you know what I mean? That random. I really didn’t know who anybody was. It wasn’t like I studied it or I was like super into it. You know, the internet wasn’t what it was today, obviously, the accessibility wasn’t what it is now. When I started, I think I was one of the first – or the first – photographer to have a blog. None of the other photographers even had websites, none of them were on MySpace, none of them had any of that stuff because it was all so new.
SL: So where do you draw your inspiration from?
TS: Just my life. I live in this weird world – kind of like never-never-land. It’s literally like…the ideas just come from my life and the things that I’ve seen and the places that I’ve been. I just like to show people the way that I feel and the moments in life.
SL: I particularly liked your pictures from the Ninth Ward (in New Orleans). They were very poignant.
TS: Thanks. Yeah, that was crazy down there.
SL: Was that a band you were shooting?
TS: No, that was just some actors. They were all doing a movie in Louisiana and I said “We have to go down to the Ninth Ward.” I wasn’t anticipating shooting anything down there, we all just wanted to go see it. And then we went there and we were all like, “Holy s**t.” I mean, you probably saw the picture with the dress in the closet. When we went into that house, we broke into that house – obviously they were going to tear it down anyway – but we broke into the house and that dress was there like that and we all got chills. We were all like, “Holy s**t.” It was crazy.
SL: I really loved those photos – but you’re probably best known for your more controversial photos. How would you describe your style – if you even have one?
TS: I think it’s my own thing. It’s funny because I have so much stuff that I’ve done and some people have only ever seen the (Lindsay) Lohan photos with the blood or other photos like that but when people look deeper, they see all of this other stuff – and there’s a lot of it.
SL: Did the negative feedback and death threats you got after your “Busted Barbie” shoot with Heather Morris make you reconsider any future projects or hold back on something you wanted to do?
TS: No. No way. My thing is like, I think as much as I got death threats and people going crazy, there are so many supporters and there are so many people who “get it” and, you know, I don’t want to censor myself because somebody has a crazy reaction to something. I think that it’s good that people had that reaction – it obviously affected them. And the emails that I got…some people sent me four-page emails. It’s like, oh, this is just a picture of the girl from Glee but it affected you enough to write me a four-page email dictating to me the story of your life and how you were abused. If anything, it just makes me want to do more, and not…the thing is, I don’t do it for the shock value. Heather and I didn’t say, “Oh, you know what would be funny? Maybe we should shock people, let’s do this.” We did it because that’s what we wanted to do. It was the same thing with Mischa, the same thing with Lindsay…it’s just interesting how it affects people.
SL: Do you ever think you’ve gotten close to crossing the line with a shoot?
TS: Ummm…I mean yeah, I’ve crossed the line. I’ve shot stuff that is beyond the line, I just haven’t released it. I think that’s part of it, you have to go far and know when to dial it back. So, yeah, I’ve done some stuff where I was like “That’s too much now.” Some stuff I’ve done, I release years later, when the time is right. I have this picture of this girl getting her tongue cut off and some people can’t even look at it. I have it hanging up in my house and people literally have to look away. They’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t, I can’t, I cant!”
SL: What is your favorite shoot that you’ve done?
TS: They’re all such a crazy experience and for me – and I’m always the most excited about the next one. Like, today I’m trying to make a 25 foot-long dress for something (laughs). So, you know, I’m deep in that and I’m excited about that right now. But yeah, they’re all a thing that’s led me to the next. It’s interesting because people always ask me who my favorite person has been to work with and it’s funny because A. if I said one of them, the other ones would kill me and B. that’s the beauty of it is working with different people, bringing different people together. It’s like a weird kind of family.
SL: You currently have an exhibit in London with Maximilian Wiedemann. How do you feel his work complements yours?
TS: It’s interesting because he has his own unique technique and I thought it would be interesting to do something with somebody where they put their own spin on my thing – and he did that. He took it and he put his own kind of thing on it and he made it different. He made it into this weird kind of pop art, avant-garde thing which I thought was interesting.
SL: Do you have any plans to bring this exhibition to the US?
TS: Not that one, that one will stay there. Next year, I’m going to do another big one in Los Angeles. I think that one will be massive.
SL: And you’ve got a book coming out, The Dirty Side of Glamor.
TS: Yeah, I have that book coming out – I don’t know when that’s coming out – but I have a novel that’s coming out in a couple of weeks.
SL: Can you tell me more about that?
TS: Yeah. It’s called The Smartest Man. It’s basically about the smartest man in the world and how he becomes the smartest man in the world and what he had to do – he basically kills the five other smartest people in the world to become the smartest man in the world. It’s pretty crazy. It’s pretty wild, the response to it has been the best. People have gone nuts for it.
SL: Have you considered working in other artistic mediums like painting or sculpture?
TS: Yeah, absolutely. I did a painting with human blood, I had 20 actors who donated their blood to me, so I did that and it was crazy. But, yeah, I’m going to start doing that and I have a few projects that I’m working on that will be crazy installations and pieces like that. And, you know, I’ve now finished five novels and I’m writing the sixth one right now.
SL: How do you find the time to do all of this?
TS: I write the novels between 4 and 6am. I generally shoot between 7 and 3am and I do all of the business during the day.
SL: Wow, I am jealous of your stamina!
TS: Thanks! I’m trying to pack in a whole lifetime into a short amount of time.
SL: Well, you’re certainly doing that – and you blog, you Twitter, you’re quite the “Renaissance man”!
TS: You’ve gotta do it, you know!