Tyler Shields: “If I Had Shot Kim And Kanye’s Vogue Cover, It Would Have Been Very Different”
Tyler Shields is sitting beside us at London’s Imitate Modern gallery. Staff are milling around, putting the finishing touches on his new exhibition Provocateur, ahead of the private view later in the evening. Starring Rumer Willis, who appears in lingerie, stockings, suspenders and heels, the series is glamorous, humorous, but above all provocative – much like Tyler himself.Chatting to him one-on-one, it’s sometimes hard to believe he’s the same guy who photographed a topless Abigail Breslin – yep, Little Miss Sunshine – and snapped Glee star Heather Morris with a painful-looking black eye. Softly spoken, though clearly immensely passionate about his work, we’re quickly drawn in to the world of Tyler Shields, flaming Birkins, Kimye, Lindsay Lohan and all.
MTV UK: Your new exhibition is called ‘Provocateur’, which we think is a word that sums you up very well; why is it important to you to push these boundaries?
Tyler Shields: I see a lot of people who are run by fear and I think they might want to create something like this, but they’re scared, of what people might think or the reaction. Not too long ago I was doing an interview for a bunch of photographers, and one of them asked me, ‘What’s the hardest part of your job?’ When I thought about it, it’s not taking the pictures, it’s not doing any of it; it’s can you take the heat? Can you take people telling you, ‘I hate you,’ or, ‘You’re an awful human being and I think you should die’? People say crazy s**t. For me, I think it’s funny, and because of that I’m given the freedom and liberty to do whatever I want.
MTV UK: Would you say with this series there’s a story running throughout the pictures?
Tyler: Yeah, the whole idea was that each photo could be a still from a movie, you could see any one of them as a part of some iconic film that you’ve never seen. I love the cinema aspect of it.
MTV UK: When you take a photo, are you always thinking of how it might look as part of an exhibition?
Tyler: With this, the first one I shot from the whole series was Dreaming Of Paris, and that happened just by accident. I just happened to be in New York for something, I was hanging out with a friend, this girl showed up and was like, ‘Oh I have this eye mask, we should shoot it’. I didn’t think anything about it, but then I thought it might be good to do a series, and it just escalated from there.
MTV UK: Rumer Willis is in the Provocateur series; how was the experience of working with her?
Tyler: She’s been a friend of mine for a long time and she was probably the most perfect person for this series. She got it, so completely, she’s fantastic. She wanted to be provocative. She was saying how excited she was to have these photos when she’s 60. Her whole life has been photographed; she was showing me baby photos and they’re shot by Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber, the most epic things you’ve ever seen. It’s cool.
MTV UK: Are you in support of her Free The Nipple campaign?
Tyler: It was her sister Scout who started it, wasn’t it? But Rumer posted a photo of her butt not too long ago and it was deleted (from Instagram). So now we gotta have free the butt, free the nipple, free this s**t man! I guess from a company standpoint they don’t want to have pornography on there, which is fine, but at the same time it’s weird. Do whatever you want to do.
MTV UK: Lindsay Lohan is another of your most iconic subjects – what is it about her that makes her so dynamic to shoot?
Tyler: Did you see the ones I just took of her?
MTV UK: Backstage at Speed The Plow? There’s one on her Instagram…
Tyler: Yeah! I’ll show you some more… It’s interesting with her, she has such a presence, and I shoot a lot of people who have a presence and who are interesting. But she has such a way about her that not a lot of people have; I guess it’s the attitude. She has a real attitude, but she understands how to work it. We shot for probably 10 minutes the other day and they’re epic.Imagine that you’re standing inside a hurricane, and inside the hurricane there’s a tornado, and inside that tornado there’s one raindrop that’s perfect. If you can find it, and you can get it, it’s the best thing ever. But it’s having that ability to find it, to see that one moment… That moment the other day we were having a conversation and she stopped, I pulled the camera up, took the picture and the conversation continued. It was in the middle of the show. She just has that thing.
MTV UK: Did you enjoy the show?
Tyler: I did, it was fun for me, because before the play when we were hanging out I ran the lines with her. It was very playful. I was playing a character, it was fun, and then she just went out and did it.
What I found interesting is that people always say negative things about her, but when I went there, the people love her. One of the guys was like, ‘Oh she’s been so great,’ I guess she bought everybody Nobu and… I don’t know. She’s always nice to me. I’m a friend of hers. I was very proud of her.MTV UK: Who would you say is top of your wish list, someone you’ve never shot before?
Tyler: I don’t really ever think about it, but the person I probably get the most requests for now is Cara Delevingne; I get a lot of people asking when I’m gonna shoot her. And then, this is weird, but Nicolas Cage. There’s a group of Nicolas Cage fans who will not stop emailing me. I get probably a hundred emails a week.
The Cara fans just want to see her do art, because they know she’ll do some crazy s**t, but the Nicolas Cage fans are a whole other thing. Someone who I’d like to shoot is Floyd Mayweather. I watched his first ever professional fight, I’ve been watching his entire career. Those are three very different people. I think I could do a whole show like this with Cara though.
MTV UK: According to the internet, you turned down Kim and Kanye’s Vogue shoot…
Tyler: It’s a funny thing, because there’s a whole business side, and sometimes things don’t even get to you. They get lost in the chain. I think they did a great job, but I think if I had done it, it would have been very different. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with Kanye. A lot of people don’t like him. He’s a smart guy though. It’s interesting.
A few years back I had a dinner with the guy who runs MTV in LA, who is a friend of Kanye’s, and he was asking what I wanted to do with him. I guess they had talked about it or something. I said, ‘Tell him, that I’m gonna get a tank, and I want him to drive a tank down Hollywood Boulevard with him on the top.’ I had this crazy idea, which we never made happen, but if I’d have done something for Vogue it could have been something like that.
MTV UK: It’s not just your work with people that has everyone talking; why do you think everyone got so upset that time you set the Birkin bag on fire?
Tyler: It was really fantastic, but people got so upset, because people thought we just bought it to destroy. They didn’t realise I was doing it for art, they thought I was just doing it to be a dick, which is fine. But then the story got bigger and bigger… It was very interesting. That series now has sold out; the last one we sold was for around £91,000. Once the heat died down, people started collecting them. I still have the ashes of the charred bag and afterwards, we were rubbing our hands in it, and my hands have never been so smooth!
MTV UK: If you could only take one photo again for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Tyler: Would I only be able to take a single photo, or could I take the same photo over and over again?
MTV UK: We’d let you take the same one multiple times.
Tyler: Hmm… Interesting. I guess it would be something from Suspense. Maybe my self-portrait? It’s my favourite one that I ever did (shows us the photo on his phone). No Photoshop. That was fun.