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Portrait photographers aren’t used to getting death threats. But you photograph a Glee cheerleader with a painted-on bruise, and people get angry.
Soon after photographer Tyler Shields posted his photos of actress Heather Morris on his website with the words “Even Barbie bruises,” he received a handful of threats on his life and hundreds of comments accusing him of glamorizing domestic abuse.
“There is nothing glamorous about violence and I think the real photos of Rihanna would show that it's not a beautiful thing that happens to you,” the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence told E! News. Shields responded by declaring he was simply a misunderstood artist and by offering to help domestic abuse victims by auctioning off the very same print of Morris with a purple eye for a starting bid of $100,000.
It was hard not to hope that this was all just a big, carefully constructed Amy Sedaris-style joke. Surely the fellow who created an album cover for femininity-subverting Peaches and once pretended to shoot a fan with a gun at his own photo exhibit had a punch line in mind?
Nope. Talking to him revealed that as much as one might wish the 29-year-old Shields was trying to send some message with his angry Barbie spectacle, the controversy had actually caught him off guard.
“Did I think that people would freak out? No, I didn’t. I thought this would be cool,” he told me over the phone. He went on to explain that his mother had been a victim of domestic abuse when he was a kid, and she didn’t find the photo offensive, so therefore in his mind it’s not. “There is a shot of [Morris] pushing the iron to my face and ironing my crotch. … That seems more like female empowerment.”
“Women are in crazy positions, sure, certainly, but really women are very dominant,” he said of the dozens of portraits of actresses, models, and musicians drenched in blood, tied up, and engaged in various sexually suggestive positions on his website.
That assessment is debatable, but at least Shields is willing to admit that the hot girl ready to kill is as cliché as the hot girl ready to cook. In interviews, he’s never once cited another photographer as an influence but instead claims all pop culture as inspiration, including the lowest of the low. Yes, his work is hollow and that’s sort of on purpose.
Shields is not trying to be the next Richard Avedon. He’s more like a teenager placed in a room full of hot girls, guns, and fake blood. Except it’s not just any fake blood—it’s fake blood by Dapper Cadaver, the same people who work with Dexter. And it’s not any hot girls—it’s some of Hollywood’s most famous. (“I am certainly not the first person in history to shoot a girl with a gun. I’m just the first person to do that with Lindsay Lohan,” he says.) And tellingly, his subjects don’t need much convincing. They want to work with him. Because for better or worse, what he’s doing is different from the average magazine shoot. He’s not asking them to look perfect. He’s not asking them to bare their souls. He’s asking them to act, like they might in a scene of a B-list thriller.
Lindsay Lohan discussed Shields’ appeal in an interview with PopEater.
PopEater: Whats different with working with Tyler versus other celebrity photographers?
JU: Here's the thing, when you're shooting with magazines, they have a very clear vision of what they want and with Tyler it's like "Lets try this, lets try that, put a whip in your hand, put on this gown, no don't, put this dress on." It's definitely more collaborative and more fun …
PopEater: What was your favorite shoot with him?
LL: It was crazy, I had him come over to my apartment building and I had a bunch of friends over at the same time, we ended up getting 20 or so people in the pool to pretend that they were dead. We pretty much got the whole party into the pool for the shoot. It was really amazing…
It makes sense that one of the few people Shields has acknowledged admiring is Andy Warhol, the ultimate self-promoter. If one thing is clear about Shields, it’s that he’s good at creating buzz.