Tyler Shields takes a dramatic approach
to photographing Hollywood stars in his new art series. He talks to Noelle Faulkner.

Harper's BAZAAR Australia, June/July 2013

You’re famous for shooting celebrities in a violent light, but the new Suspense series reflects how you started. How did this shift in themes come about?
“The first actor I shot was Ben Foster and it was a portrait of him jumping off a building … These shots are really elaborate to set up, they’re expensive and they’re crazy. It took a long time for me to be able to get back into it, but if I had done this five years ago, it would have been lost on a lot of people. First, I had to build a following, and then come back to it.
“It started as a self-portrait series because I didn’t know who else could do it and I didn’t want anybody to get injured or to go too crazy. I shot some of me backflipping over train tracks and showed them to Francesca [Eastwood, Sheilds’s girlfriend] and Emma [Roberts]. When they saw them they were like, ‘We’re doing this!’. It was the first time I ever really tried to convince somebody not to do something. I said, ‘No, this is not for you, I’m doing it myself.’ But they wanted to and they blew me away. Slowly, I let people come into it. It was incredible.”

Does this mean you’re done with the “dirty and violent” celebrity angle?
“I’ve kind of done that, you know? I’m still going to shoot actors, but the dirty side of glamour project took five years to do and I feel like I did it pretty well. A lot of people are now emulating that style. I mean, there is nothing wrong with shooting what inspires you, but I see a lot of people trying to do shoots with blood and guns. You’ve got to stay ahead of the curve and I think it’s good for me to move forward into the next phase.”

You have a reputation for pushing people to get the shot. Was there much pushing in this series, either metaphorically or physically?
“Yes, both. I had to push Emma off a bridge to get the series started. It’s one thing when you see it and you want to do it and it’s another when you’re standing on a 40-foot bridge and you’re like, “Wait a minute, hold on”. To me, the beauty of this series is not only pushing myself and pushing the people who are in it mentally and physically, but also pushing the viewer mentally and physically.
“I grew up racing motocross and skating and jumping off high dives and all kinds of weird stuff like that, so I’m not a good judge of what’s crazy. But as I showed [the pictures] to people I realised some of these are going to be hard for some people to look at and they’re going to really blow people’s minds, which to me is exciting.”

The Birkin Series, 2012

“It was like, if you’re paying all this money for these things, let’s see what they’re actually made of. I had already set some Louis Vuitton [leather goods] on fire and sawed a pair of Louboutin [shoes] in half. One day I was at [British socialite] Tamara Ecclestone’s house and she had this collection of Hermès Birkins; Francesca was like, “Oh my god!”. I didn’t know what a Birkin was. After some time, I emailed Tamara and asked “What is the most sought after fashion item in the world?”. She said “the Birkin”… It took me six months to get one. Francesca wanted to wear it but I was ready to destroy this thing. We bolted it down and she chainsawed it. It was completely unfazed by the chainsaw - It stood up perfectly still, it was actually amazing! We didn’t intend to set it on fire. But I had to bring out the big guns.”
– Tyler Shields

Tyler Shields’s Suspense is showing May 17–July 6 at MCLEMOI Gallery, Sydney, which exclusively represents him in Australia and Asia, as part of Head On Photo Festival; mclemoi.com; headon.com.au; tylershields.com

Images from top: Leaner, 2012; Burning Birkin 2012, courtesy of the artist.