Photographer Tyler Shields likes to visualize items in their raw element. Often he deconstructs the talent in his shoots and the product as well (hence, why he recently destroyed an Hermes Birkin Bag for his craft). Here, fresh on the heels of his new book release, Shields walks us through the making of his newest tome The Dirty Side of Glamour.
“It’s more about talent than celebrity,” says Shields. “Everyone I shoot has a crazy hidden talent or something they are great at doing. Heather Morris, for instance, is one of the most amazing dancers I have ever seen and did the shoot holding onto a street sign, which was incredibly difficult. But people overlooked that and only saw the black eye.”
L+T: Tell me about the idea of the now infamous “Birkin Bag” image? What was the idea behind this?
TS: I didn’t know what a Birkin was until I met [TV host] Tamara Ecclestone. It was fun to find out that people actually collect these bags. I started doing a series where I destroyed things to see how well they were made. So I started sawing things in half or setting them on fire. I was curious to see what people were really getting when they paid $2,000 for a pair of shoes. It turns out all of the luxury items were very well made. When we chainsawed the Birkin, it was still standing at the end. It took fire to bring it down.
L+T: The response to this image was polarizing – what did you feel as a result?
TS: The response was amazing. It upset a lot of people, but a lot of people loved it. At the end of the day you have to be willing to take the heat if you want to push boundaries—and that’s exactly what the image did. It really got to people. It was so simple but it said a lot, which is what I loved about it. Then there were people who wanted to kill me for destroying a bag because they felt like I took it away from them, but that’s a whole different story.
L+T: You offer your subjects freedom to let go in front of the camera, and the results are breathtaking. What is your tactic?
TS: In the early days, I would tell people I wanted to take a photo that their kids would think was cool. Now I don’t have to say much because people know what they are getting into with my shoots. They know what the goal is when they work with me, and recently I’ve been working on more series and that are a lot of fun. I like working on new series’ and my latest is called Submerged, which is an underwater experiment. I don’t know if it sounds as intense as it really was, but underwater photography is an animal unto itself and I wanted that challenge. I loved it.
L+T: Tell me about the name The Dirty Side of Glamour. What’s behind the title of the book?
TS: The Dirty Side of Glamour is the idea of taking people to the craziest, dirtiest places. There’s no primping and no pampering. You mentioned Josh Hutcherson earlier, and while I was shooting him in a pile of mud in downtown LA he ended up in a pond where a homeless man was bathing on the other side. He didn’t care though, because he was just amped to get an epic shot. These are real moments with no CGI or Photoshop. This book is about taking crazy people to crazy places. I have a photo of Lindsay Lohan that no one has ever seen. She’s doing her own makeup in a random car’s rearview mirror on skid row. It makes me smile because when I came up with the idea for this book, I met with a big publisher and the owner of a magazine and I told them the idea. They told me “I was wasting my time” and that I would never get anyone to do anything outside of a studio. So many people told me these kind of shoots were impossible. “No way. Never happening. Wasting your time. Good luck. Yeah right.” The amount of times people tried to tell me this would never happen is insane. It makes me laugh how people love to try and crush dreams. So I suppose at the end of the day, the “dirty side of glamour” has as much to do with the images as it does with being a photographer, which is one of the most challenging jobs in the world because it is all dependent on your brain being able to create over and over again.
L+T: Why did now seem like the appropriate time to put out a book?
TS: For me, a book was one of those projects that I could never really call finished. I could have kept working on it forever. Finally I said, “OK, this is it.” I am going to finish this by this date and move on to the next series and the next idea, which will take me another five years. I put a time limit on it and that was the only way to finish it. I know most artists are perfectionists and feel like something is never done but, in the end, if you work like that you will never put anything out. Sometimes you just have to say “this is it” and be done with it, which I did. It made me work harder and finish strong. I was very fortunate as well to have great people at HarperCollins who supported this project and really stood behind me. They did not make me change or alter the book in any way. They were excited about the craziness and supported it.
L+T: What are you working on now? What’s coming up?
TS: Right now I am directing and acting in my new film Outlaw, which is very exciting. I sold a photo to fund the movie and it’s a film about a photographer. I can’t wait for people to see it and I also have Final Girl coming out at end of the year or next year, which is a film I did with Abigail Breslin and Wes Bentley and the one I think is going to blow people away! I mentioned earlier that I am doing my underwater series Submerged which debuts in October at Imitate Modern in London and then The Dirty Side of Glamour comes out in November which still feels like a dream in itself.