Ah, Hollywood ... it can bleed its most beloved stars and icons dry. Yeah, we know, boo-hoo, but let's face it, the more famous you become, the more perilous your existence: high-speed stalkarazzi chases, enabling sycophants brandishing substances, swag and empty sex, the undeniably brutal blogosphere.
In the controversial, celeb-heavy, often blood-splattered images of L.A. photographer Tyler Shields, this contrast between beauty and dread is definitely intentional.
Best known for eerie images of starlets — notably Lindsay Lohan — posing with weapons or as ravaging fiends, Shields initially released his photographs and videos on MySpace; he understood early on the power of online buzz and sharing.
When he began doing gallery shows, he took the foreboding feel of his images to another level, leading gallerygoers into theatrical surprises. He now releases shots on his website and makes them available for purchase via British-based A Gallery U.K., and the more controversial shots almost always make the gossip-blog rounds.
Although he's received loads of negative attention recently from women's groups and animal-rights activists — for pictures showing Glee's Heather Morris with a black eye and The OC star Mischa Barton fondling raw beef, respectively — his images don't go viral simply because of their shock value. Web surfers are intrigued by his enigmatic persona and signature style, which allow his subjects to explore dark, freaky aesthetics.
For the actresses, being shot by Shields is a subversive status symbol. "It's an interworking relationship," he tell us in his Hollywood home office. "I promote them, and they promote me."
Indeed, you can't "hire" the photog at any price, he says. No money is exchanged between artist and subject. Shields says some of his subjects have gotten film roles thanks to his pics and videos.
Though the photographer says he doesn't watch TV or pay attention to the news, his subject list is a who's who of tabloid all-stars. Lohan initially hit him up on Twitter to take pics, leading to her much-blogged shots — with a knife, with a gun, as vampire, as a done-up diva getting groped with a deer-in-the-headlights gaze. The pair also have become pals, as is the case with most of his subjects.
"I've known Tyler for five years. He's a talented photographer but also a good friend," says actress Emma Roberts, who happened to pop by Shields' abode during our interview. "He makes you want to come up with crazy stuff just to try and top the things he comes up with. I love that he always has people doing the opposite of what you'd think they would do."
Apparently we were the first to throw out the word "star-fucker" at Shields (he denies its literal truth), but there's no denying that the people he shoots and hangs out with are in an elite "club" (his words) of sorts.
Originally from Jacksonville, Fla., Shields came to L.A. nine years ago and eventually began directing music videos, such as Ghostface Killah's "Biscuits" and Defari's "Spell My Name." He says all his friendships with famous peeps happened organically, many via the Internet, since he doesn't go out much.
This is one of the reasons the guy has as many critics as he does connoisseurs of his — not cheap — work. What shutterbug wouldn't be jealous of Shields' knack for getting stars to bare their souls, and sometimes more? How does he do it, anyway?
"It's a collaboration," says Glee's Jenna Ushkowitz. "I don't think he could get the shots he gets unless the artist" — that's her — "and Tyler totally believe in it. And I could only hope that the public would respect what we see as art."
But do they? Just take a look at the comments section on blogs like TMZ and even the artist's own website, which call him everything from a Terry Richardson wanna-be to a woman hater.
Gossip blogger Perez Hilton, who often posts Shields' pics, told L.A. Weekly that Shields is "a genius photographer, a genius at spotting rising talent and befriending them, and a genius marketer." Gawker, meanwhile, in a post about the Morris controversy, quoted Shields' contention that "our shoot poses a lot of questions," and responded, "Unclear whether the participants have even the shallowest understanding of what those questions are and why they are posing them."
Controversies like Morris' "Busted Barbie" shoot also turn people off. "I'm not trying to shock," Shields contends. "I'm just trying to play with all of those things that the news and culture tell you you should be afraid of. Seeing blood and guns and violence does something to people." He eventually auctioned off Morris' shots and donated the proceeds to an anti-abuse group.
Shields' psych-play involves more than picture taking. He just released his first novel, Smartest Man, available digitally via Amazon.com. In the intro, he calls the book an "experience of the mind," an idea he plays with frequently: He often invites a select group of people to take part in secret "games" and mysterious "journeys."
Invites for the premiere screening of his latest video compilation at the exclusive Soho House in West Hollywood last month said only, "Wear black, be there at 8 p.m. and come alone."
After observing Shields' carefully cultivated quirkiness and exploring his curiously decorated home — blacked-out windows; bottles of his favorite condiment, A1 Steak Sauce, lining a shelf as decor; blown-up versions of some of his more lurid works on the walls; random props including the infamous Lohan dagger and unloaded gun lying about — we were ready for some sick shit. After all, at the infamous opening exhibit for his "Collisions" show last year, he shot a man — for real — wearing a bulletproof vest.
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The entrance to Soho's plush red screening room was guarded by a masked lass taking cellphones and a guy with a shotgun. Once inside, we participated in a "play dead" photo shoot with the other attendees, including Roberts and actors from Gossip Girl and various teen shows.
Shields' video mash-up featuring never-before-seen clips "from the vault," as he calls it, was — like all of his work — stark, surreal and gorgeous. Gruesome and sexy setups saw subjects such as Zachary Quinto, Matt Dallas (Kyle XY), Twilight's Kellan Lutz, the Glee kids and LiLo pose and prance and dance and screw to a great if predictable soundtrack (The Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart"). Ultimately, we found the film — and the evening — rather tame, especially compared with, say, the fetishistic free-for-all of Marilyn Manson's Shia LaBeouf–directed "Born Villain" video, which came out the same month.
Like Manson, Shields' talent goes beyond shock schlock. He has a great eye, a uniquely sinister way of tweaking the Hollywood mystique and a gift for getting his subjects to push personal boundaries. The mystery behind his relationships and habits captivate the media, not unlike the art world's best-known friend of the famous, Andy Warhol.
The problem with provocateurs such as Warhol and Manson, however, is that they always have to outdo themselves, and when they aren't able to, they can end up like the tragic celebrities who inspire them: victims of their own success.