Notorious for accessorizing young Hollywood stars with blood, black eyes and weaponry, Tyler Shields has staged most of his edgy celebrity photo shoots from the comfort of a studio. But when actress Emma Roberts and Shields’ longtime girlfriend Francesca Eastwood are voluntarily jumping off of buildings and bridges -- their bodies like ragdolls suspended in the air -- the risks are very, very real.
These leaps of faith are all part of Suspense, Shields’ new gravity-defying, mind-bending, stomach-turning photo series that debuts April 28 at the Guy Hepner Gallery in West Hollywood, (300 North Robertson Boulevard). Wearing a red Armani Exchange minidress, Roberts falls backwards from a building in one shot; Eastwood propels off a ten-foot bridge in another, reaching upward to the sky rather than preparing to land safely.
“Suspense is not about death; it’s about life,” explains Shields to The Hollywood Reporter. “Some people definitely look at these pictures, and they see the people as if they’re about to die. I see the people as if they’re about to live.”
Shields’ new series seems to represent a new turn for the photographer -- shots of Eastwood floating in Malibu with a single balloon or falling into the New Mexico desert boast a more ethereal mood, rather than posing with pepper spray and fire in high-contrast lighting. But motion has often highlighted his work, which has captured Glee’s Dianna Agron blowing a fistful of glitter, Demi Lovato shattering a glass wall and Revenge’s Emily VanCamp being showered in colored powder.
While it may not garner the same outraged headlines as Shields' photos of a $100,000 Hermes Birkin bag being mutilated with a chainsaw, his new shots still have their own shock value: subjects are captured in midair moments that seem too dangerous and impossible to fathom. Had he relied on wires and harnesses, the resulting shots wouldn’t evoke the same unease and confusion.
“When I first started showing people these photos, the reaction was unlike anything I’ve ever seen -- I mean, some of these photos turn people’s stomachs, some people couldn’t look at them, because people are so afraid of that kind of freedom,” he says. “People can’t figure out how we did any of these shots. That is very exciting to me -- to be able to push ourselves physically, and to be able to push the mind of the viewer.”
As with many of his celebrity shoots, Shields also pushes each subject to try something they don’t normally do. But rather than posing with guns, being tied to empty train tracks or biting piles of hundred dollar bills, Suspense only allowed one opportunity to get it right.
“In most of my photos, I look like I’m actually falling -- it’s because I really am falling! I’m not coordinated enough to flip off of something or do a position,” Eastwood laughs, admitting that she had to be persuaded to buy into each photo concept. “I really pushed myself. I think the whole series is about how anything is possible; that’s really what it makes me think of. It’s pretty crazy when you’re afraid to do something and then you do it, and you look back on it and get to feel proud. It’s a great feeling.”
So how did they pull it off sans Photoshop and stunt doubles? Simple: when a group of guys are tossing Roberts to boyfriend Evan Peters of American Horror Story, he knew he needed to catch her, no matter what.
“I think because I'm small, he wanted to use me in all the throwing shots, which were terrifying,” says Roberts, who commonly bombards Shields with new ideas via text and loves trying new stunts on set. “I would just jump and hope for the best, and was shocked at how high I'd gotten when I saw the pictures!”
The photographer also uses clever framing.
“What you can’t see on the left and the right side of these pictures is insane,” says Shields, who also hid landing spots in large dirt holes for riskier stunts. “We see a guy leaping off of a forty-foot bridge -- what’s awesome about that is he had a safe place to land. He just had to make it there, and you just can’t see where that is.”
Shields says he'd welcome it if his images are misunderstood. After years of dismissing death threats and hate mail for showcasing Lindsay Lohan with a bloody weapon or slashing Louboutin heels in half, he’s used to it.
“I think that’s part of making anything -- there are gonna be people who don’t like things that you do, and that doesn’t matter; they don’t matter at all,” says the photographer. “‘Why would anyone want to go and jump off a bridge for a picture? That’s crazy!’ But those people aren’t me. And as much as I don’t make sense to them, they don’t make sense to me. And I think that it’s awesome. I think it’s awesome if something can be polarizing.”
A former professional skateboarder whose hobbies include racecars, motocross and skydiving, Shields began “Suspense” a year ago as a self-portrait series.
“I didn’t think anybody else would want to get that crazy, for lack of a better term!” he says. But Roberts and Eastwood saw proofs and wanted to try it, together. Shields then spent the entirety of his last birthday capturing his two regular muses crashing into each other midair, and teaching them how to safely land on concrete.
“He’s very calculated in the dangerous things that he does, so you’re relatively safe,” says Eastwood, daughter of Clint Eastwood and personality of E!'s Mrs. Eastwood & Company who congratulated stars onstage as Miss Golden Globe 2013. “Once I had gotten the hang of how to jump, I had no worries at all. Tyler teaches you how to land in a way that you’re not breaking anything, but you are getting pretty banged up.”
Besides the inevitable bruises and overall soreness, the only noteworthy injury was a broken ankle for actor Brett London, who didn’t stick the landing when leaping off a train in the desert. “I mean, you can break your ankle walking down the stairs,” defends the photographer.
For Shields’ most expensive series to date (at least double the Birkin shoot, he says), all wardrobe comes courtesy of Armani Exchange, including 35 suits and counting. “I don’t even want to total up how much money that would’ve cost,” he laughs. “Basically, anything that you do in the Suspense series, clothing-wise, you’re pretty much counting on it getting destroyed.”
Shields began the series equipped with the 35mm Hasselblad Xpan 2, a panoramic camera that slowed him down at 1.2 frames-per-second. Depending on the stunt, Shields now switches between a Leica film camera and “the fastest digital camera that I could get” from Canon.
Viewers might suppose that the suspended shots are captured by continuously firing a camera’s trigger, but Shields never shoots entirely through a move.
“You just can’t do it like that ...to get these type of ethereal, magical-looking moments, you’re flying into that position and you’ve gotta hold it for a second, but you can’t hold it forever,” says Shields. Certain stances now have nicknames on set. “I’ll say, ‘Alright, give me a Peter Pan off this.’ That’s our code word for when you’re gonna fly straight ahead in that perfect fairytale-ish kind of way.”
Though Shields has a full year ahead -- his feature directorial debut with the Nasser Entertainment and Prospect Park thriller Final Girl starring Abigail Breslin and Wes Bentley is set for September, and his first photo book, The Dirty Side of Glamour, hit shelves November 2013 via HarperCollins' IT Books imprint -- he’s already making big plans for a Suspense hardcover tome in the years to come.
“I’m going to do a limited-edition of ten books for Suspense that will be the largest book ever printed, and they’re gonna go for $150,000 a piece, and they’re gonna come with their own table.” Shields tells THR exclusively. “It’s a whole viewing experience ...it’s not about the page count, it’s about how big it is when you open it. It’s gonna be massive.” Shields will keep one of these collector’s items for himself, and also release a regular-sized version afterwards.
Such creative experiments extend to Shields’ gallery openings, which have put attendees in 100-degree heat to spark reactions, and featured live imitations of the photos on the wall: models in lingerie chewing raw meat, well-dressed rabbits playing chess and a simulated gun fight. What’s in store for the debut of Suspense in Los Angeles later this month? Connor Paulo of Revenge and Gossip Girl has some ideas.
“[Connor] calls me up saying, ‘Should I go in the suit that I’ve been shooting in for the series which is completely destroyed, or should I just go in my underwear?’” laughs Shields, who admits he’s still deciding between a few gravity-defying ideas. “I could never throw a party without doing something wild.”
More exclusive images from the series below: