L.A. based contemporary artist and filmmaker Tyler Shields’ work and output has much more to do with the long-standing and perhaps transcendental clarity behind controlled subconscious image-making in the vein of Caravaggio’s near photographic paintings in the 16th century, where rules and guidelines of the century were abandoned and / or re-incorporated to challenge the sensibilities of the time. In this regard, the artist’s work is as equally controversial with other image-makers who have utilized the tools of sex, death, flesh, obsession, nightmares and fantasy to explore the peculiarity of the human condition rendered into a coherent aesthetic clarity and style. Shields captures a new type of American life while exploring the fictional nature of the historical and the classic. He has an exhibition at the Leica Gallery in Los Angeles, May 13th about Provocateur.
Please describe the background of Provocateur. From where did you draw inspiration for this book?
Provocateur was really a culmination of 5 years of work. The inspiration came from a wide variety of places: the 60’s race riots all the way to the Marie Antoinette era, exploding cars to the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
Each photograph in the book has a detailed creative process where thoughtful production was key. How do you start the creative process for the photos? Maybe drawing sketches? Or writing?
I very rarely sketch things out or write ideas down as the ideas mainly live in my head. I just have an idea, order some props, call some friends to shoot and that’s pretty much it!
You mentioned in a Facebook post about the uniqueness of the moment when ‘Ana’ the model, stuck her tongue out and the Python seemed to mimic her in that precise moment. You thought to yourself “did that just happen?”. Can you talk a bit more about this sort of situations (also the one with the crocodile)?
That was one of those moments, my assistant calls them “God moments” which you obviously can’t plan. It happened also when I was in Ohio for my gallery. I met a guy who happened to have built his own plane. I asked if I could see it so he showed me the plane. Ana happened to have a bright blue dress with her that matched the yellow plane and the green and yellow cornfields perfectly. The next thing that happened was the plane was flown over her head while she was running in heels and I happened to capture that moment in one frame. Only only frame exists of the plane perfectly over her head. I definitely feel like that was a “did that just happen?” moment. The alligator shoot was wild. We were told that it could only get within 5 feet of anyone. (The Gator was called Gary the Gator and he was named after Gary Busey if that tells you anything). At the end of the day Ana asked if she could lay down facing the alligator and the handlers said yes-he had been calm that day-and she got down on the ground, I stood over her with my feet right by the alligators’ mouth and got the photo of them. The fact that the alligator remained still and I was able to get a photo of him so near a person’s head is also a “did that just happen?” moment.
The photograph with Marie Antoinette – styled young women enjoying pastries and cakes suggest overemphasis in excess, lust and luxury. Is this something you wanted to show? Is this the underlying denominator of Provocateur?
Marie Antoinette was one of the first true provocateurs in history so it only seemed fitting that we include her era in the book. In a certain way we are living in a Marie Antoinette era right now, seeing how people can connect to those works is amazing and the parallels you can draw between them fascinated me.
The image titled ‘Lynching’ is a bold and direct statement, clearly important for today’s turmoil. How do you think art and photography play a role in today’s society and politics?
Photography has never been bigger than it is right now. There are more photographers today then ever in history which is amazing but now you have this thing happening where a lot of people take photos that all look the same, using the same cameras, shooting in the same locations and making work that is safe for Instagram which is dangerous. It’s a dangerous place for artists to exist because when you make art with fear it ceases to be art. I remember showing people lynching and they told me it would end my career yet it became the most well respected and most seen work I have ever made which just goes to show you sometimes you have to do the thing people say you are crazy for.
How was the curation process for your May 13th exhibition at the Leica Gallery in LA?
It’s a mixture of my images which is great because I have been doing just one certain series the last few years. This gallery will have a few images from a few different series over the years. The curation really came from my different work on different Leicas and how a different camera can shape an image.
Some of the images in your show depict scenes from the 70s, like the PanAm cabin with actor Nathan Fillion in the forefront. What intrigues you from this scene? Why Nathan?
The 1969 moon landing was such an iconic moment in history and Nathan was the perfect man to play that part for me. He is someone who I wanted to work with for a long time and I could not have had someone better for that shot, he just has so much charisma. Seeing the scene on a real PanAm plane and the detail when you see the print large changes everything for me. I think the colous on the plane and all the different characters are what most intrigue me.
Colton Hayne’s story is impactful yet powerful at the same time. His monochrome image shows him as if he was pregnant. Would you share the story behind Colton and his photograph?
Colton is so bold he is up for anything so when I had the idea I called him and said “I want you to be pregnant” he said “when?” and that was it. He came over the next day and we made it happen. The great thing about Colton is that we have worked together for years so there’s a trust and understanding there. A lot of people would be scared to put out a photo like that but Colton isn’t afraid and that goes a long way.
Talk about your use of Leica equipment. What bodies and lenses did you use for the book (at least the majority of the images) and for the show?
I have used the R8 with the 50mm lens. The monochrome with 35mm and 50mm f1.4. The Noctilux 0.95 the MD the Leica S (Typ 006) and (Typ 007) systems the Leica M6 and M7 and pretty much anything I can get my hands on for lenses. The main go to is the 50mm 1.4 or the 35mm 1.4.
A tough, probably subjective question, but if you had to choose only one camera, which Leica would you choose and why?
That’s tough. I just tried the Leica M10 and it is amazing. I love the Monochrome, to me its one of the best digital camera ever made. I know people think “oh it only shoots black and white.” I thought the same thing until I used it and it blew my mind.
Thank you Tyler!
To know more about Tyler Shields, please visit his official website.