It’s not every day that you take a chainsaw to a $100,000 handbag, destroy a pair of designer shoes or direct actors to be bound to train tracks, chomp on raw meat and spontaneously sport a fresh black eye for fun.
But that can be a typical day for Tyler Shields, the controversial celebrity photographer (and now actor and director) notorious for accessorizing young Hollywood’s elite with guns, knives and murderous Barbies. In addition to appearing in two upcoming movies and making his feature directorial debut with the Nasser Entertainment and Prospect Park thriller Final Girl starring Abigail Breslin, set to begin shooting later this year, Shields will release his first photo book, The Dirty Side of Glamour. The book will debut with HarperCollins and IT Books publishing, available fall 2013.
“A big part of this book is about showing the freedom of yourself,” Shields told The Hollywood Reporter. “People get caught up in the idea of celebrity, fame, luxury, excess -- but all they really are is an idea. I mean, every celebrity goes to the bathroom! They all eat; they’ve all had their heart broken! They’ve all done everything that every person has done, but they just live under a microscope.”
The cult of the celebrity is a theme Shields has explored with Hayden Panetierre, Alex Pettyfer, Demi Lovato, Josh Hutcherson and the casts of Glee and Revenge. Shields' girlfriend Francesca Eastwood was captured pepper spraying a SWAT team, and Ashley Greene has voluntarily been gagged and roped to train tracks. Lindsay Lohan has alternated between blood, knives and a portrayal of Linda Lovelace. Emma Roberts -- who Shields says "will text me five ideas in a day" -- has posed alongside bloody and beheaded Barbie dolls and while biting a pile of hundred dollar bills.
“With Lindsay and the blood, Mischa [Barton] with the meat, Heather Morris with the black eye -- part of this was showing the different perceptions of what fame really is and what it does,” he continued. “People think that fame is so glamorous, but go and work on a set for twenty hours a day -- you’re in the mud and you’re freakin’ cold, and you haven’t seen the person you love in six months. There are prices to pay for all of this fame, all of these things that people think they want. I just like to show all of that.”
Most recently, Shields made headlines when he asked Eastwood to mutilate a crocodile Hermès Birkin bag with a chainsaw and set it on fire. After donning the designer tote for a few days on E!’s Mrs. Eastwood & Company -- and even attempting to shopping for a new black dress to accompany it around town -- she finally gave into the idea of trashing the luxury item.
“That was Francesca’s first time using a chainsaw,” he reflected to THR. “It was like, ‘By the way, we have one shot at this -- we only have one $100,000 bag, so good luck and don’t fuck it up!’”
Though he says that shoot, like the rest of his work, pairs lighthearted fun with social commentary, he had to defend himself against a viral backlash. Once he uploaded the photos to his website back in May, his blog post was flooded with user comments that the pieces are "a narcissistic show of your own excesses" and just "a lame photo shoot done by a crazed drug whore and her bored, unemployed 'boyfriend.'" Additionally, Eastwood received death threats and insults on Twitter after the links were shared on social media.
Shields has since donated one of the Birkin shots to an auction that will take place in London later this year, and he hopes to sell it for at least $100,000 -- the price of the destroyed bag-- and donate it to charity. Still, he stands by the photos' shock value.
“Why would you be offended that I set a bag on fire? If that bag was from the grocery store, nobody would give a shit. They’re only offended because it’s an Hermès Birkin, and most of the people who are offended don’t have a Birkin -- and they probably never will! But it’s their idea of the Birkin, and their want for it. It’s like, ‘Oh, I want this so bad, and he had it and he burned it.’ The Birkin on fire, the Louboutin sawed in half -- all of that destruction is about setting yourself free.”
On set, Shields also encourages the celebrities themselves to question their own ideas about their fame and fortune.
“I love the idea of people not being afraid, and every person who is in the book, at one moment, let go of their fear and participated in something different. All these people have handlers; they have people telling them to do things and telling them to do not things that are unique. Every one of them stood against them for a moment.”
The photographer doesn’t seek out celebrities to be his subjects; rather, they contact him after hearing about the project by red carpet word-of-mouth. All he asks for is an open mind to whatever concept they then come up with together.
“It’s important to me that the people want to do it -- I never like it when somebody tries to force it on them, like, ‘Oh, we want to edge you up, so you should shoot with this guy,’” he recollected of past pitches. He says he no longer turns requests down "because of rumors and perceptions" and only makes a decision after meeting the person face to face.
“You know, it’s funny -- AJ McLean, many, many years ago, hit me up and wanted to shoot, and I said no. A mutual friend of ours said, ‘Well, at least meet him and see if you like him -- you’ve never even met him!’” The two then met, leading to shoots with the Backstreet Boy dressed in a green Iron Man-style suit, a cream tuxedo and a black dress and heels. “Cut to six years later, and I’m the minister at his wedding!”
The Dirty Side of Glamour features never-before-seen shots mixed in with fan favorites. Shields admitted that he locked himself in a room for over 19 hours to select shots from five years of hard drives.
“There’s no Photoshop, everything you see is real. When you see somebody doing something, they’re actually doing it,” he told THR of his minimal editing when shooting film and digital. “If you Photoshopped the Birkin on fire, it’s not the same story, it’s not really as impactful as, ‘Oh yeah, we lit this on fire, and then I had my girlfriend’s face six inches from it.’”
Plus, it’s more fun for everyone on the shoot. “I remember so vividly that it literally looked like a unicorn had been murdered in my house!” he said of shooting Glee’s Dianna Agron. “There was glitter and wigs everywhere, the whole house was plastic wrapped, and it was five o’clock in the morning.”
Shields says he wasn't able to afford such lavish shoots just a few years back.
“I didn’t know when I started doing it that I was gonna set a Birkin on fire; it’s just kind of built itself into its own monster,” said Shields. “When I started doing this book, I was very poor. There was a moment when a model named Caroline D’Amore would give me free pizza, because her father owns a pizza place -- hopefully she doesn’t get in trouble for that! So I was eating a pizza a week, and the occasional In ‘N’ Out burger. I didn’t give a shit; I just wanted to create things and I was having a great time. Because of collectors, I was able to shoot more, and now I have this whole crazy setup and a team who can go anywhere.”
Shields wasn't always a photographer. Originally a professional skateboarder who competed in halfpipe events at the X Games and once toured with Tony Hawk, he first came to Los Angeles to direct music videos. Some of his work includes Styrofoam's "Couches in Alleys" featuring Ben Gibbard and "Ride" by the Cary Brothers -- a video spotlighting Brittany Snow and Shiloh Fernandez with gasoline fires and a ton of running mascara.
“It’s just really terrible how little creative control they try to give you -- you are not celebrated for being different, for being unique. There were just so many rules. People would show you a video and say, ‘We want to capture this.’ As an artist, it’s like, ‘Why would I do that? Hire that person!’ I never would conform to that.”
So what does Shields want to do next? “Most [ideas] I keep secret, but one that I’ve been working on for a long time is a plane crash scene. The chaos collection of everyone all in one moment, putting everyone in that moment of mass hysteria -- setting people on fire, putting some people in the seats -- a really crazy scenario with everyone. It’s a big undertaking.” He hopes to someday feature Floyd Mayweather, and "all of my friends that have worked with Nicolas Cage are all trying to get me to shoot him."
Shields will appear in The Boys of Abu Gharaib, Rebel One Pictures' war film that just wrapped post-production and is due out later this year. He is currently shooting the Fox 2000 thriller Delirium in Israel and Los Angeles, scheduled for a 2013 release.
He whispered that he’s already begun shooting his next photo series, debuting next spring. “It’s gonna be crazy. People got broken arms, broken legs!”
Shields says he loves the chance to always do something new. “It’s so exciting as an artist,” he told THR. A lot of my friends who are actors will get stuck playing a character for five years, and they get bored of it. Being able to do all of these things is such a treat. Anything you want to do, you can do it.”
The Dirty Side of Glamour will be released in fall 2013 by HarperCollins and IT Books Publishing.