Photographer and Jacksonville native Tyler Shields recently broke the Internet with his new series of work, Historical Fiction. The newsfeed-grabbing piece Lynching features a nude black male hanging a uniformed member of the Ku Klux Klan. Celebrity gossip outlet TMZ even reported on the work.
But, even before the sleaze-TV exposure, Shields’ notoriety for provocative and often aggressive photographs of young Hollywood was well-established.
In 2012, Shields became a household name after releasing a series of photographs depicting a Hermes Birkin handbag — the celebrity treasure, with waiting lists stretching into the decades and a six-figure price tag — being destroyed in various ways. The photos themselves are quite visceral and make no qualms about getting right to the point. However, the real art and intellect of the work was realized once the photographs were exhibited and subsequently reproduced on social media. The outcry was immediate and unrelenting. Viewers were outraged that Shields had burned, sawed, and bitten such a prized possession. Words like hack, spoiled, sad, and entitled began to flow from every social media platform.
The reactions to Birkin and Historical Fiction are closely related, as both series speak to viewers in terms of social-economic status and class. Does Birkin hark back to Renaissance paintings depicting royalty and all of their prized possessions, or the rebellion that followed caused by the enormous disparity of wealth? How does Historical Fiction relate to the social unrest felt after the events that transpired in Baltimore? What has the current wealth gap done to our country?
These questions become the work. They provide viewers with a catalyst for conversation. Each forum topic and every conversation that follows can be matted and framed to accompany the work. The photographs have become one with the reaction and vice-versa, creating a grand performance headlining seven days a week on the magnificent stage that is the Internet. Folio Weekly recently talked to Shields at his Los Angeles home about Historical Fiction, sparking conversation on social media, and how his native city influences his work.
Folio Weekly: Historical Fiction recently blew up the Internet. what is the concept behind that series?
Tyler Shields: The idea for that series was to kind of touch on moments in history. I love the idea of not recreating the actual moment, for instance, John F. Kennedy being killed. I didn’t want to recreate that actual moment, but more the reaction people had. That was more of what interested me. So we took a lot of these moments from history and recreated ideas of what people’s reactions might have been.
Did you draw directly from any current events?
Yeah, one of the things that I definitely noticed was in this generation, anyone you talk to can tell you where they were and what they were doing when 9/11 happened. That’s probably the most prevalent moment in this generation’s history. But, it was the same for people you talk to when Kennedy was killed or when Marilyn Monroe died. You talk to certain people that were around then and they remember being taken out of school when Kennedy was killed. It’s interesting to me how now 9/11 wasn’t even that long ago, but smartphones weren’t really a thing and the Internet wasn’t big as it is now. Now news has much less weight to it than it did during 9/11.
Yeah, social media waters things down and the news can get lost.
Exactly, it just comes and goes now.
Your work invokes a really good conversation, especially on social media and the Internet. When you were creating this work, did you have a specific conversation you hoped to start?
I think that any time you make something, you want people to talk about it. The main idea for me was [that] I don’t want to tell people what they should think. I wanted to create something and let them think whatever they are going to think. It’s not what I think about it, because what I think about it doesn’t matter. I know what I think about it; I made it. You learn a lot about people from their reaction. I went on MSNBC and they had an old, white police officer on there and they showed him the photo of the American flag image and he said, “I think this is disgusting. It’s within his first amendment right to do this, but I think it’s terrible” and blah blah blah. Then the other people on the show tore him apart. I thought it was so interesting because he looks at it and he sees something negative and the other people, who were a bit younger, thought it was fantastic. So you know everyone is going to have a different opinion. If I’m allowed to make it, people are allowed to hate it, but they are also allowed to love it.
The piece that was on many front pages was the lynching. What lead to its creation?
Growing up in the South, you see images of the KKK or you hear about it or just know about it. I don’t know why, but ever since I was a kid, I always imagined what it would be like if it was the other way around. Even finding the right person who would have the balls to do that was interesting. I didn’t tell him that he was going to do that until he got to my house. I said, “This is what we are going to do; you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.” He stared at the floor for about a minute and then said, “Let’s do it.”
Having him nude makes him vulnerable, yet he is completely in control. The juxtaposition is very interesting.
Definitely; when we were there, he turned around and looked at me; we are in this swamp. He’s in it and I’m behind him, and we have no idea what’s in there. We’re trying to do it as quick as we can and he turns around looks at me and he says, “This feels biblical.”
Is the work you create today informed by growing up in Jacksonville?
I think everything that I do in my life has been shaped in some way by where I grew up, who I hung out with, and what I did as a kid. Jacksonville is a very interesting place when you go away from it and look back on it; there’s a lot that you can do there. I know a lot of my friends say it’s boring, but it’s really not. You can be at the beach and surfing and 10 minutes later be at Kona Skate Park. There’s a lot of fascinating things to do in that city … There is a fascinating group of people in Jacksonville.
Any advice for local artists?
People get this idea that you need to go to New York or LA and those are the places to shoot. Really what’s fascinating now is people are more interested in seeing Jacksonville or the South or these other worlds that exist down there. Don’t be afraid to really explore what you have available to you. Don’t think you need to be somewhere else, because you have gold right in front of you. I have some plans to come back and shoot because there are places that I remember as a kid.
A lot of your work deals with the disparity of wealth, the Birkin series and historical fiction. What interests you about this topic?
Tyler Shields: I remember the first time I heard about a Birkin. I was, like, let me get this straight; it’s a $100,000 purse. It doesn’t do your taxes, it doesn’t drive your car, it’s a bag. Here’s the thing, I get the idea of luxury goods. Somebody gave me a $5,000 leather jacket. It’s the nicest jacket that I have ever worn in my life. You can tell the difference. I remember when someone told me you should get one of these jackets. I was, like, I would never buy that shit, then somebody gave it to me and I was, like, wow this thing will last me my entire life. So in that turn, I get the idea. Would you buy a pair of shoes for $1,000 if they would last you 20 years? You’re going to spend that amount of money on it anyway. So I wanted to see if a $100,000 bag would hold up to a chainsaw. The craziest thing, nobody ever talks about this, we chainsawed it and it still stood up. I was, like, you got to be fucking kidding me. And then I said, let’s see how it does with gasoline; it didn’t fare well. I love the idea of liberation and that concept can be very liberating. One of the things I always thought about was Egypt. They would build a tomb that was the size of a house and bury someone with all their shit in it. Would that stuff have been better if it was just given to other people and they could have used it? Yeah, of course. You can’t take the bag with you, but the photo is forever.
Do you have a favorite piece from the new series?
I would say probably the lynching is my favorite because that piece has affected people in a way I’ve never experienced. I’ve gotten more requests to buy that photo than any other photo ever times 10. What I love about that is I had two of my good friends in my house probably a month before the series came out. I showed it to them and their jaws dropped. They freaked out and said you can’t release this; people are going to hate it. For two hours they went off about it. These were people I’ve known for a long time, they were there when I did the Birkin and they never said anything. With this they said, “Do not release it.” Obviously I disagreed with them and I released it. What’s really funny is one of them wrote me the week after it all came out and they said, “Well, I was wrong.” It’s probably the most loved photo I have ever taken. I find it interesting because now people live in such fear of everything. Well, I don’t want to be labeled as this or I don’t want people to be upset about that. One of the things that I think is very difficult for photographers or for anyone who is making anything is, can you take the heat? Can you go on a TV show and have a cop tell you that you are disgusting? Can you have all this weight come down on you? Can you still say to yourself, “I know this is right and I’m going to do it anyway”?
Recently I was reading an interview you had with the Daily Beast where you said, “Celebrity photography is dead; it’s over.” I’m interested in this because in the new series, you have reactions to celebrities actually dying. Can you elaborate on that?
That’s right. You’re the first person that’s put that together. Fantastic! I started shooting celebrities in a different way than most people were shooting them back in the day. That was what flung my career into the eye of the public. It was a different time then, not everyone was a photographer. Not every celebrity was willing to post everything. They didn’t have Instagram or Twitter. This was pre all that stuff. Posting things online was not accepted. I remember I went to Rolling Stone and a bunch of magazines and said, “I want to do an online thing” and they all said, “No, we don’t care about that.” I probably went to 20 magazines and said, “I want to do these really crazy conceptual celebrity works and I don’t want it to be in print. I just want to do it online.” Every single one of them said no. One of the owners of one of the magazines, who I won’t name, not only said no, but he said that will never happen. You will never shoot a celebrity outside of a studio without their entire team involved. He has since congratulated me and apologized for that statement.
That’s always the best.
It was such a different time and the reason why it’s dead now is because you have all these photographers shooting very similar and are pushed to shoot commercial things that can resell. That’s the kind of mantra of a lot of photographers now in the celebrity world. They don’t want to do anything too crazy because they don’t want to get in trouble from the publicists. The real truth is, if you want to see an intimate photo of a celebrity, you can just go on their Instagram and they are posting one or two a day.
You have the heavy pieces like of American flag and lynching. I’m interested in the inspiration behind a piece like Hair dryer 1965.
One of the big ideas was to show the different sides. So, you have an image like the hair dryer and you have the Marilyn Monroe where the girls are in the salon. On the other side of it, you have the Martin Luther King girls in the salon and those are very different moments. Marilyn Monroe was a pop icon and Martin Luther King is this hero to a generation and the different reactions to the deaths are very interesting to me. I wanted to have a few moments in there about a specific time. The hair dryer and things like that show how some people during this time were very unaffected by things. The thing about that time is, not everyone got the news. I remember talking to someone who was away and they didn’t find out that Marilyn Monroe was dead for six months. So we wanted to play with that a little bit. This woman blowdrying her hair and having no idea what’s going on in the news.
I’m finishing up a book right now. The book is going to come out in 2016. Then here in the next couple months Final Girl, my first movie that I directed, is going to come out in theaters. That will be out before October.