07/03/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Collision Course: A Conversation With Photographer Tyler Shields (PHOTOS)

On Tyler Shields' website you'll see some of Hollywood's freshest and most iconic faces doing some unthinkable things. A snarling Zach Quinto drenched in milk, Twilight's delectable Ashley Green tied to a live train track, Lindsay Lohan dripping in blood brandishing a loaded firearm. You'll see a fistfight with Rain Wilson and Gary Busey in a straight jacket (alright that one kinda makes sense). Clearly, I had to meet this guy.

I heard he was about to debut a new series of photographs, a series he calls "Collisions" -- and apparently it was going to "change the game" of photography. I heard a rumor that he sold one of them for close to a million dollars. I talked my way into an invite to the debut party and an interview at the 28-year-old artist's house to get a first look at the series, and find out what all the hype was about. I figured I was in for a treat, but I did not anticipate that I was about to meet one of the most obsessive, extreme, and ultimately fascinating young artists I'd encountered in a long time.

Collision Course: Photos by Tyler Shields

What struck me first about Tyler Shield's Hollywood home wasn't the X-ray image of a loaded gun in a skull's mouth, the framed portrait of a human heart with a dagger through it, or the photo of a famous Hollywood actress holding a baby while smoking a cigarette (if only her publicist knew). His website prepared me for that stuff; it was his obsessive attention to detail outside his artwork that truly struck me. On his desk, three identical ballpoint pens were lined up next to each other -- perfectly perpendicular to a line of three uniform pairs of black Ray Ban sunglasses. Every surface was immaculately clean and minimalist. On the walls were images of calculated madness, a nice juxtaposition to the spotless floors. And that's the moment I started to understand Tyler. He's an artist who specializes in organized chaos.

Be sure to check out the slide show of the new series after the interview. And how could I forget, as a "stunt" at the Collisions debut party this weekend, Tyler shot a man in the chest. With a gun. The man had a bulletproof vest on and the stunt was professionally executed, but nonetheless... Tell me you don't want to meet this guy.

NK: Tell me about the new images you debuted tonight. "Collisions."
TS: This is the product of my brain and my entire life's work. It was created without the use of Photoshop and it's all one image... the technique for that is something that I will not disclose. (Laughs).

NK: How did the technique come to you?
TS: I was lying in bed one night and started thinking about pictures as memories, my own memories. I went downstairs and 6 hours later I made this (he points at the first image). My ex-girlfriend came down and said, "what the fuck is that?"... What I like is that it's something you've never seen before. It takes your brain a minute to process what it is.

NK: And what is it?
TS: This is how I see people; it's how I see the world. My memory is like a thousand timelines, all running images, like a sequence or a filmstrip. Now imagine you can take images from it as it goes and layer them on top of each other. That's what this picture is. This picture is how memories work. Sometimes your memories overlap and create a collision. I sound like I'm crazy, but after 27 years to finally be able to show that to someone, how my mind works, now that's crazy. I finally have a visual representation. I remember every moment of my life so perfectly and so vividly. I think I have 98% recall or something like that.

NK: There seems to be a lot of nostalgia in the photographs; they seem incredibly personal. Do you seek to actively recreate a moment of your life in your work, or do you focus on expressing a specific sentiment or emotion?
TS: Both. A great photograph freezes time forever. Some tell a story of five minutes, some of five years. I want to tell the story of a lifetime in a photograph. If there are two people in a photograph, I want to make people think and wonder about their whole lives -- the before, during and after of their lives. I guess I try to bring a narrative sense to my photos. I love the way people react to that.

NK: I see something new in these photos every second I'm looking at it. They are very interactive.
TS: Once I figured out the technique and I saw the potential for people to see something different every time they looked at it, I knew I was cookin' with butter. I love the way people react to my work, but I've never seen reactions like this. People say it could change the face of what people are doing, but who knows, that seems like an awfully nice compliment. I just enjoy that everyone sees something different -- it's crazy. When I first came to Hollywood, every one told me "you have to be able to tell a story" and if you can do it with one image? That's great. I love to tell stories, and there are insane stories behind all my photographs.

NK: I heard you've been getting thrown some high numbers for these photos. Want to tell me how much?
TS: Ha, of course not. I'm fortunate to make money doing what I love. I came from nothing. I had a military Dad and a house Mom. I'm happy that people respond emotionally.

NK: BS. I heard a mill.
TS: Well, a lot of people want to buy them, I had an actor tell me he was gonna take a big studio role just to buy one! I'll say that the offers I have are the largest I've heard of. It makes me feel very lucky.

NK: Do you want to take the most expensive photograph ever?
TS: Sure! What's cooler to me is that the previous #1, 2 and 3 in that category are all dead. And I'm kinda just getting started.

NK: I want in. How do I make a photo like this? What's the process?
TS: (Laughs). When they invented cameras they were black and white. Then
they did color. Then they were digital. There's always been an evolution. Cameras now are so great, they do what you want and in this instance I found a way to make it do what I wanted to do.

NK: Thanks for the non-answer. I guess I won't get rich from this.
TS: Magic is great when you don't know how it's done, right? If you know how it's done, it's still magical to see but then you have all these other magicians trying to do it in their way. And that's great but I'm gonna keep this one for me.

NK: I imagine once people hear what you sell this for they're gonna try duplicate it. Can they?
TS: I've had friends try. Crazy graphic designers, Photoshop guys. They get so pissed off by the end because everything they made looked like shit. Sure, you can get close, you can make layered images, but you can't do this.

NK: Briefly tell us about the stuff you were doing before this and about your progression as an artist.
TS: I started doing music videos then photography came to me by accident. As I continued doing it, I've worked with a lot of actors and I started doing things with them they always wanted to. That spawned video portraits. Then a new audience came, nobody was really doing stuff like that. When the Zach Quinto one came out, people started to understand what I was doing and I guess wanted to see more.

NK: You're a peculiar guy. I know you keep crazy hours; I know you're obsessive. I talked to an actress you worked with and she described working with you as an out of body and very uncomfortable experience.
TS: I know who you're talking about. (Laughs) We broke a lot of rules on that shoot; she had a fascination with hanging herself. So we did it, twice.

NK: How do you get public people to do such intense personal stuff?
TS: I'm not trying to sell clothes or makeup, it's just me and them. A lot of photoshoots have 500 people around, each person in charge of one hair. I like to allow what is inside of people to come out. When Rain Wilson came to me, I made him climb around in a dumpster with a homeless person and beat me up. He said "OK."

NK: What is it about you that makes people get to that next level?
TS: I've never asked anybody to do something I wouldn't do. If I want someone to climb up a bridge or jump off a building, they'll see me do it first. If one of my subjects fears for their life, awesome. I would never put anyone in a position where they might die. Brittany Snow hit me with a car and broke my ribs. I've had black eyes, broken bones and cuts; they're all occupational hazards.

NK: Have you always had this extreme sports approach to your art? Is this something that transcends to other parts of your life?
TS: Absolutely. I like to ride trains on weekends and jump off whenever I want. That sounds like a good time.

NK: Do you bring a camera everywhere?
TS: No. The craziest shit I've seen I haven't captured.

NK: There's a lot of pain in your work. Why?
TS: I've experienced a lot of physical pain in my life. I cracked my head open and went into a coma when I was 12. I fell out of a helicopter. I've been through pain. The thing about pain is that it's an alarm clock that lets you know you're alive.

NK: And this has lead to this reckless sense of abandon in your work?
TS: Yea. An actor came here yesterday and I could tell he was tired. So I started punching him and I punch really fast. I probably punched him three hundred times in a matter of two minutes. That's a good warm up. I'm not gonna tell you who it was but you know him. He thanked me.

NK: People aren't scared to work with you?
TS: I never knew how people thought about me until I met Hayden Panettiere on the Heroes set. She came up to me and said "So I hear you like to put loaded guns in people's mouths." I thought, first of all "where do you hear this?" and second of all it's true. I told her I didn't want to be the guy that took the X-ray gunshot with no bullet in the gun. So I put the bullets in. Once I explained that, she understood it more. There is a method to the madness a calculated chaos if you will. I commit 100% to what I'm doing and they know that and trust it.

NK: Clearly.
TS: Everything in my life has trained me and leads me to understand what it is that I'm doing. I can shoot guns. I can fly a helicopter. I'm down for whatever. I don't believe in fear, I fear nothing. I don't fear dying. If I die doing what I love that would be great.

NK: What's next for you? Will directing movies be in your future?
TS: Yes. I'm writing a movie now and it will be the craziest I have ever done to date.

NK: Have you always been such a serious artist?
TS: Art wasn't present in my early life. My Dad was a military guy, and he was great but it never came up. He's handicapped and does Olympic level archery with his teeth and is on a cereal box. I've always been able to get people to do what I want them to do in a way that they feel good about it. To be able to capture something from someone is the greatest feeling. Photography was something I just had to do. And if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna try to be the best at it. I only know how to do things the way I know how to do them. When I go bowling it's crazy, when I make a sandwich it's crazy. My idea of being normal or being me is weird to some people. I don't know why. It's how I've always been. In the beginning people label you as crazy but when it works they back off. I'm obsessed with pushing the boundaries of people and the result of that is art.

NK: I hear you've always been sober, never touched alcohol or drugs. That makes all this a bit more interesting.
TS: My mind doesn't need altering; I've never altered it.

NK: Aside from this new series, what's your hope for this debut?
TS: If this became something that everyone saw and everyone recognized as something new that would be great. I would love to have this be part of a revolution of a new style of art. If this inspires people to do something different and push themselves in a way they never have, then my work is done.

See more of Tyler's work.

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