Tyler Shields knew he’d ruffle some feathers—maybe even royally piss some people off—with his latest art project. But death threats? The controversial photographer hadn’t expected quite so many.
A new series of glossy action photos he set loose on the web last month effectively functions as the high-fashion equivalent of torture porn. In the pictures, Shields’s girlfriend, Francesca Eastwood—daughter of Clint and a principal player on the E! Entertainment unscripted series Mrs. Eastwood & Company—is shown decimating an Hermès Birkin bag, first taking a chainsaw to the $100,000 crocodile purse before setting it ablaze. The Birkin is an object of fetishistic devotion for fashionistas and a codified symbol of extreme privilege among the rich and thin, and fans of the bag revolted on seeing the work.
And so began an intense cyber-bullying campaign directed against Shields and Eastwood. “Oh, it’s death threat day,” Shields said, dripping sarcasm as he recalled his initial reaction to the controversy.
“People want to kill me? People want to kill Kanye [West]. People wanted to kill Steve Jobs. They want to kill people all the time,” he said. “It’s the Internet. Most of those people, if you saw them face to face, they’re not going to say shit.”
If the 30-year old Florida native sounds blasé in the face of public outrage and potential bloodshed, it’s because he’s been down this road before. Shields is Young Hollywood’s de facto house photographer, a visual firebrand known for upending squeaky perceptions of youthful celebs—Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson, Emma Roberts, Twilight hunk Kellan Lutz, and Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser among them—with his brutal images that take off like viral wildfire, often resulting in floods of tabloid coverage. With their arterial splatter and implied violence, full of fuck-me pumps and chiseled abs and unbuttoned clothing, Shields’s photos of stars behaving badly also have put him in the spotlight. Recently, the photographer has landed roles in two movies and a reality TV series while he prepares to direct his first feature film—even if Shields remains something of a joke in fine-arts circles and is written off as a star-fucker by his vocal detractors.
Meanwhile, the death threats remain an ongoing concern. Last year, Shields released a series of photos depicting former star of TV’s The O.C. Mischa Barton, sensually interacting with an oversize piece of raw steak. As with the Birkin photos, haters were quick to respond with critical suggestions. “I had people tell me they wanted to slice my flesh open and feed it to me and see how I liked it,” the boyish photographer, seated at a Hollywood diner, said just before biting into a hamburger patty doused with A1 Steak Sauce.
And last September, when Shields issued photos on his website featuring Glee star Heather Morris heavily made up to sport what looks like a lurid black eye, haters sent the photographer a veritable avalanche of death threats—some 25,000 by Shields’s estimation—as well as heaping scorn upon him in his site’s comments section.
“What in the world is wrong with you?” asked a commenter named Roger. “Women aren’t supposed to be treated that way and I personally think you are an idiot for taking pictures like that. There is absolutely nothing glamorous or funny about the abuse of women.”
According to Shields’s art dealer, Fraser Kee Scott, the photographer’s emphasis on creating cinematic imagery that surfs the cultural zeitgeist rather than pledging fealty to academic notions of contemporary art drives sales of his prints, which have sold for between $15,000 and $100,000 at galleries in London and Los Angeles. As well, Scott said, Shields deftly manipulates controversy into a kind of mass consciousness of his work, which can be as much a part of Shields’s creative process as conjuring grabby images. “What Tyler is doing is painting with the medium of the media,” Scott pointed out. “It’s a global canvas today—the Internet, TV—and the artist has to be directly imposing his images onto that. It’s an art form in itself.”
Growing up in a military family in Jacksonville, Fla., however, Shields did not have art at the forefront of his mind as much as cracking into the movie biz. At 17, he says, he drove to Los Angeles intent on becoming a director. Shields, “poor as shit and living off pizzas,” initially squeaked by occasionally directing videos for hip-hop performers such as Defari and Ghostface Killah. But it wasn’t until some friends encouraged Shields to post a snapshot he had taken to MySpace—remember MySpace?—that his career as a photographer kicked off in earnest.
That photo reached the right advertising honchos, landing Shields a catalogue shoot for the Magic Marketplace fashion trade show, his first paid gig. And a 2005 assignment photographing the well-connected actress-model-DJ Caroline D’Amore was a professional tipping point.
“I shoot her in a crack den where a hooker had been beaten to death with a VCR two days earlier; a real shithole,” Shields recalled. “She loves it, has the best time ever. She introduces me to Ben Foster, Danny Masterson, dah-de-dah. Ben jumps off a fucking building for me. All of a sudden everybody wants to shoot.”
“Everybody,” in this case, would have to include Lindsay Lohan, who contacted Shields through his Twitter feed and whom he has photographed several times in ever more sensational setups. In one series, the tabloid mainstay appears drenched in fake blood and clutching a butcher’s knife; in another set of photos (taken around the time of Lohan’s infamous 2011 shoplifting trial) she is shown in lingerie and pointing a gun toward her mouth. “It’s not softcore porn hunny,” the spelling-averse Lohan tweeted in defense of the shots, “it’s called ART.”
Shields’s 18-year old girlfriend, Francesca Eastwood, elucidated the unique alchemy of the photographer’s creative process. “Tyler never tells who he is going to shoot what they will be doing. That way, no one has time to overthink the shoots,” Eastwood told The Daily Beast in an email. “No one is worrying during the shoot about what they are about to do because Tyler tells you in the moment.”
She added: “As a photographer, he is very intense and focused. Actually, he is like that in all things in his life. He is great because he is never pushy. People want to get wild and let loose. Tyler gives people the opportunity to do things no one else can.”
But even with a track record of pushing emotional hot buttons with his photographs, Shields insists his Birkin bag stunt was never intended to outrage viewers. Nor, for that matter, was the endgame to make any sort of critical commentary about society’s willingness to pay six figures for a fancy purse—or even to poke fun at the kind of fashion slaves who wept bitter tears upon seeing evidence he had torched the Birkin.
To hear Shields tell it, the project’s genesis was nothing quite so cerebral. The photos are part of an ongoing series charting the cartoonish destruction of outrageously expensive luxury items—a glorified science experiment partially inspired by the Discovery Channel’s docu-series MythBusters.
Previously, the photographer hacksawed and then lit on fire a $2,000 pair of Christian Louboutin pumps. And he also has immolated a Louis Vuitton purse and wallet in the name of art. “I knew this was the most sought-after bag of all time. If people are willing to pay so much for it, I want to test it,” he said. “What’s inside it? How would this bag react to a fire? How would it react to a chainsaw? People view me as being a provocateur. But I never saw myself as so provocative.”
Burning the Birkin brought him even more notoriety, and outcry, after he was featured on E!’s Mrs. Eastwood & Company last month. Although the cameras were trained more on Francesca than on him, the photographer is the first to admit his work benefits from the exposure. Still, his appearance on the show, his romantic relationship with showbiz royalty and the undeniable currency Young Hollywood has given his photographs combine to raise a touchy question that has dogged Shields for the past few years.
Is he primarily interested in making art? Stirring up controversy to sell photos? Or is he simply a star-fucker with all the fame-for-fame’s-sake that that term implies?
The photographer denied ever being motivated by money and detailed a laundry list of his upcoming projects. Shields has taken acting roles in two indie movies, The Boys from Abu Ghraib and Delirium, both of which he landed without auditioning thanks to a little help from his friends (namely the 20-something celebs he photographs). There’s the long-gestating coffee-table book of Shields’s work he says will be published by HarperCollins late next year called The Dirty Side of Glamour. And then there’s his independently financed directorial debut, Final Girl—a thriller for which the photographer plans to train Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin in ju-jitsu and kung fu, and which begins filming in September.
He appeared determined to refute the S-word. “It’s funny they call me a star-fucker,” Shields said, growing suddenly serious. “The one fundamental answer to that and everything else is, those stars ask me”—he thumped his chest twice—“not the other way around. How can I be a star-fucker if I don’t ask anyone for anything?”
“I want to do things that allow me opportunity,” Shields continued. “My girlfriend was on the show, they asked me to be on it. I’m a very straight-up guy. I’m not afraid to be myself.”