Coined the “Andy Warhol of our generation,” Tyler Shields is best known for his provocative photos and celebrity appeal. He works best when capturing the bona fide intensity of his subjects in the moment. It comes at no surprise that to take these boundary-pushing photographs, he ventures off the conventional set to places like the middle of the desert, the Palace of Versailles, and even the bottom of a pool.
What began as Shields taking pictures of himself backflipping over train tracks, turned into the year-long series, Suspense. Celebrities like Emma Roberts, Francesca Eastwood, and Lydia Hearst were eager to get involved, despite Shields’ own hesitancy to enlist them for such dangerous activities. Location proved to be as much of a subject as the models. The perilous environments help create the discomfort viewers feel when looking at the photographs. From nude bodies fully exposed to arid deserts, to models captured free–falling from the side of a building, shooting the photos in their true contexts is why the collection lives up to its name.
Taking the extra step also paid off in Shields’ Decadence series. He sought out the most authentically lavish place to shoot the collection – the actual court of Marie Antoinette. Powder wigs, custom dresses, and decadent props are used to create racy scenes of what might have gone on behind those same closed doors centuries ago. The photographs are so effective in mocking the indulgence and faux modesty of the time partly because of their genuine setting. Shields once again blurs the lines between illusion and reality by pushing the scope of his photoshoots.
Out of all the locations Shields has shot in, perhaps the most impressive is underwater. Shields himself deems it, “the most challenging and incredible ways I have ever made a photograph.” His Submerged series hurdled over many obstacles that made attempting such a shoot seem impossible.
Shields recalls, “From day one I knew I wanted to make something special, something that would make people stop and think, ‘how did he do this?’” Shields knew in order to capture the vision he had for the shoot, he needed to be able to stay underwater longer than any of the other models, with complete freedom of what to photograph and how to do it. He explains, “I did not want to use oxygen tanks. Instead, I wanted to learn to free dive the whole series – I can now hold my breath for up to 6 minutes underwater. This ability gave me the chance to shoot images in a way that could not have been done with scuba gear and tanks and allowed me to create a unique look.”
The drive and persistence it took to execute the series pays off in a major way. Shields is able to capture the models fully immersed in the water, with the intimate perspective from the bottom of the pool. He writes, “From holding my breath, to getting people in thirty pound dresses 20 feet under the water, to finding the right film and camera combination, there were a million stop signs trying to prevent this from happening. But in the end, I was able to make a series I was very proud of.”
Pushing the boundaries beyond what’s easy and expected has made Shields the photographer he is. The work Shields puts in behind the scenes make it into the images themselves, elevating them from an illusion to something that feels simultaneously real and unreal. By continuing to do what hasn’t been attempted before, he is able to take photographs that stand out.
View the complete Submerged series here.