The Theater of Exposure: Provocative L.A.-based celebrity “bad boy” photographer Tyler Shields

By on June 3, 2017

LA-based celebrity photographer Tyler Shields’ provocative work usually attracts a lot of attention, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, as we learned earlier this week when comedienne/actress Kathy Griffin shared a singular particular photo from her recent photo shoot with Shields, igniting a controversy that led to her posting an apology for sharing the photo on social media, followed by a press conference in which she shed more than a few tears about what happened.

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Let’s recap: On Tuesday, May 30th, 56-year old Kathy Griffin shared Shields’ photo of her holding a fake blood-dripping prop head which looked enough like the severed head of President Donald Trump that it drew immediate and sharply-worded criticism from lots of people who likely forgot, at least for a moment, that Griffin has long used edgy humor to stir up a response from her audience, usually either onstage at a comedy club or whenever a TV camera is pointed at her.

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However, it seems that a lot of people on TV prattling on and on about the photo have failed to even mention that it was just one of many images shot recently by 35-year old photographer Tyler Shields, who Yahoo Style has recently called the “bad boy of photography.”

His work has previously been compared to that of Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Avedon, to name just a few (we’d also add David LaChapelle to that list).

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Shields was already well-known in the art world for his wonderfully colorful photos which are often dark and violent, and sometimes heavily stylized and carefully-staged photos of glammed-out celebrities, including Lindsay Lohan, Emma Roberts, Demi Lovato, Aaron Paul and many others.

He’s often worked with attractive, young female starlets, and has previously photographed them fighting on a studio floor with an alligator over ownership of a Birkin bag, or snorting Coca-Cola through a straw, or standing top the hood of a white Rolls Royce in the middle of the desert, splashing gasoline over its surface which then explodes in a fiery ball of fire.

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Earlier this week, Shields told Entertainment Weekly that their main aim was to fashion an image that would stand out among all the other images that inundate people during their daily perusals through social media or the internet.

“To make something that really stands out is very difficult now,” Shields said. “I think that this has the potential to make people stop for a second and say, ‘What is that?'”

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Shields was later approached this week by someone from the gossip website TMZ.com when he was at a Gelson’s market where he’d just purchased some ice cream, and asked if he’d like to address the controversy about the provocative image of Griffin — who looked very serious, stonefaced and unfunny whilst holding the bloody Trump head — but Shields really seemed unfazed by the controversy.

“Yeah, the thing is, honestly, I got no comments,” he told them. “Only thing is, if you make art, you’ve got to stand by it, that’s it.”

He was asked if he’d do it again, take a similar photo of a different politician or celebrity in the same type of provocative pose, and his answer to them was rather telling: “Can’t censor myself, man.”

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Shields has said that the controversial photo in question was carefully premeditated, and planned out in advance, both he and Griffin thinking that it was a “fun” way to “get political” and express their opposition to President Trump and his policies.

Shields told Entertainment Weekly that they’d gotten together for a full-day photo shoot and threw a lot of ideas around until they hit upon the idea of having Griffin making a statement with the bloody, severed head that would harken back to Trump’s notorious insult of former Fox News TV host Megyn Kelly during the presidential campaign (we posted about that too, sorta).

Shields told EW: “We’d been talking about doing something and she said to me, ‘I’m not afraid to get political if you want or make a statement if you want.'” He added later, “We had about 10 different ideas and we had the props and we had the things there for them, but then on the day, it was like, ‘This is the one. This is the one to do for sure.'”

Shields joked about what she should caption the photo when she posted it to her Twitter page, and here’s what Griffin posted along with the photo: “I caption this ‘there was blood coming out of his eyes, blood coming out of his…wherever’ Also @tylershields great Photog/film maker.”

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Shields also told TMZ that he deliberately uses disturbing and “timely” imagery to get attention for whatever statement that he and Griffin hoped to make, wanting to, in Griffin’s own words, mock the “Mocker in Chief.”

(That was from her second Twitter post on May 30th: “OBVIOUSLY, I do not condone ANY violence by my fans or others to anyone, ever! I’m merely mocking the Mocker in Chief.”)

Earlier, Shields had told EW that the two of them had joked about whether they could get away with it on First Amendment grounds — a topic near and dear to Night Flight’s hearts — and then joked with each other that they might have to move to Mexico in order to avoid being tossed in jail.

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Shields:

“Now again, fortunately, we have freedom of speech [in the First Amendment] and all art is generally protected by these things, but again, this was her first thought, ‘Will you bail me out of jail?’ You know, again, it wasn’t, ‘I don’t want to do this because I might go to jail.’ It was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna do it and whatever happens, happens.'”

Griffin, of course, has already sincerely apologized for the gory image, which she posted to social media on Tuesday night, saying:

“I am just now seeing the reaction of these images. … I went way too far. The image is too disturbing. I understand how it offends people. It wasn’t funny. I get it.”

Regarding Trump, Shields told EW:

“I’d say Trump is probably the most polarizing president that we’ve ever had. I’ve heard more things about him already in this presidency than I remember hearing about Clinton’s, probably, entire term. But I was a very young man, so it was different. He’s the social media president. So, look, it’s not even about him. It’s just about the whole thing of where we’re at right now as a society and he just happens to be the one speaking at that.”

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There have been times in the fairly recent past where Shields has had to endure comments about some of his photographs, like the time in 2011 when he shot 24-year old “Glee” star Heather Morris in a series of photos where she appeared to be the victim of domestic abuse, appearing in several photos with a black or bruised eye.

In a statement issued exclusively to the UK’s Daily Mail, Shields denied that the photos were meant to glorify violence of any kind, saying “In no way did we even think about promoting domestic violence.” The photos led to Shields donating money from the sale of the photos to an anti-domestic abuse initiative started by Glamour Magazine.

“A lot of people have been sending me death threats because they are angry I am promoting violence, which was never the case. However we do have people talking so I will auction off three photos for $100,000 each and I will give every penny to charity if they sell. So if you are anti-domestic abuse spread the word about it. Threatening to kill me is not going to help anything.”

Earlier this year, in January of 2017, Shields was asked to describe to the Dallas Observer his sense of humor, which others have said “crosses a line,” and he replied:

“I don’t judge. I am sure there is a line, I have just never seen it. But I will say I have done some serious pranks in my day so elaborate [that] two of them have been going for six years. So I guess you could say I am committed to getting the laugh.”

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Here’s more about a few of Tyler Shields’ art projects, including a couple of books which you can purchase at Amazon:

Provocateur: Photographs:

Provocateur brings together in a single lavish volume his most compelling work to date, including a series of retro-style glamour portraits, ethereally decadent Marie Antoinette-inspired visions, and rustic woodland scenes that serve as a backdrop for modern-day nymphs.

Unaffected by the feathers he ruffles, Tyler pushes his subjects―often the young elite of Hollywood―and himself, to the limits, going well outside usual comfort zones.

Tyler’s daring, perceptiveness, and skill in getting his subjects to reveal themselves make these images unforgettable and truly provocative.

Historical Fiction:

Historical Fiction was photographed in locations across the United States over a period of twelve months through early 2015.

These large-scale color-saturated and black and white photographs, each limited to editions of 3, are the artist’s powerful interpretations of iconic moments and individual reactions to 1960s American political and pop culture history including the first men on the moon, the disbanding of The Beatles, the Golden Age of air travel, racial violence and the deaths of James Dean, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Marilyn Monroe. The 23 photographs are a collective of jarring imagery that intend to provoke reaction.

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About Historical Fiction Tyler Shields says, “No matter what age you are and no matter where you were, tragic moments in history such as 9/11, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr. impact us. Other moments may influence us in a different way and can have a lasting effect, like first time you travel in an airplane, are inspired by art, see a magic trick, or fall in love.”

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Shields continues,“With Historical Fiction, I have tried to create a narrative of history frozen in time, as if each image were part of a book where the first and last 100 pages have been torn out, and the story is for you to decipher. What happened before and what happened after is only up to the imagination of the viewer, and it’s that viewer that can envision themselves in many of these moments.”

Also check out Dirty Side of Glamour.

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Here’s his bio, from Tyler Shields’ own website:

Born in Jacksonville, Florida and now recognized as “Hollywood’s favorite photographer,” L.A. based contemporary artist and filmmaker Tyler Shields’ evolution from the “bad boy of photography” with his controversial blood-stained photographic series featuring Lindsay Lohan to the more subtle color-explosive poesy of his Chromatic series, and his work featuring Francesca Eastwood (Clint’s daughter) to the fire-starting bag-sawing antics of a $100,00 Hermes Birkin Bag, to the stoic magic surrealism of Suspense, a project shot in the New Mexico desert featuring Francesca Eastwood, Emma Roberts and Lydia Hearst, Mr. Shield’s art captures the emergence of an artist and his medium into a more mature overture and output.

Tyler Shields is an American image-maker.

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Born in 1982, Shields’ work derives from a unique history directing music videos and working with the legendary skateboarding icon Tony Hawk. Mr. Shields has produced images that play with notions of the gaze, power structures, hyper-realism, iconoclastic-tendencies and cinematographic practice.

He has worked with a roster of ranking members of Hollywood including Mischa Barton, Emma Roberts, Aaron Paul, Demi Lovato, Juno Temple, Shiloh Fernandez and more.

Tyler’s output involves various mediums from book publishing The Dirty Side of Glamour in 2011, to a novel entitled Smartest Man, and a cluster of solo shows: Mouthful, Los Angeles (2012), Miller Gallery Cincinnati, Ohio (2012), Phothub Manomtr, Moscow, Russia (2012) and more.

Shield’s technical brilliance as a photographer has much more to do with the shift in focus from the fragility of the “celebrity photographer” to the output of the contemporary art medium.

Most of the talented people who work with him include actors who are serious about their profession, but are not celebrities. People will go to him to make art rather than celebrity photography.

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As an artist, Shields’ work and output has much more to do with the long-standing and perhaps transcendental clarity behind controlled subconscious image-making in the vein of Caravaggio’s near photographic paintings in the 16th century, where rules and guidelines of the century were abandoned and/or re-incorporated to challenge the sensibilities of the time.

In this regard, the artist’s work is as equally controversial with other image-makers who have utilized the tools of sex, death, flesh, obsession, nightmares and fantasy to explore the peculiarity of the human condition rendered into a coherent aesthetic clarity and style.

Shields’ work is a type of ‘dark romance’ that scales the bandwidth of image development in the age of Google Image searches, the Internet, and a near infinite source and access to moving-image making material and iconography.

The challenge is finding the right nodes toward a product or project that captures the body from its most emaciated status of apathy to the near classical ideal forms that captivate and engage attention and interests of our collective gaze.

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“To expose yourself to the world, you and your work, naked to the global theater of billions of views, clicks, hits, image-searches, etc, is a remarkable statement within itself – to say – this is me and who I am, is powerful.”

This theater of exposure is explored through the layer of celebrity and the mechanisms of industrial image-making capacity that is now augmented in every outlet by technology, new tools and software.

Within the deluge of images, our eyes remain fixated on the living body and its potential to be virtually perfect.

The masquerade of celebrity is the photographer’s playground and a flash of rapture.

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Tyler Shields, as an artist, attempts to move through the complexes and layers of the “celebrity” sphere, into an inherently tangible vision of the portrait, and its meaning and context in a rather shifting landscape of identities that accumulate into what we call the 21st-century.

What does it mean to be alive in the 21st century? How does it look? How will it look 500 years from now in the future, in five years? What does it take for an image to capture attention throughout the deep-gaze of time and the ever more increasing scrutiny of the platform of the contemporary space of art, now, then and a thousand tomorrows from today, or a thousand ‘likes’ from now?

“People will go to him to make art rather than celebrity photography.”

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Mr. Shields’ work isn’t about celebrity – it’s about working with colleagues and friends in his social sphere who want to make art. They share an obsession to create, to make, to own, to expose, to play.

His work is as much a collection of documentations of his sphere of influence and inspire his work. They are active participants rather that spectators.

Eroticism, torture, decadence are all mere mediums that seem to remain eternally the same and only enhanced by the participant’s own injected identity and experience.

It is the glossy mortality of the space of the human condition that is the only true crystal lens that the world inside and out, can be seen in the creation of a new type of fiction.

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Tyler Shields captures a new type of American life while exploring the fictional nature of the historical and the classic.

Visit Tyler Shields’ Youtube page here.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.