Is Celebrity Photographer Tyler Shields Inspired, Or Copying Other Artists?
He might be the photographic equivalent of the Fat Jew.
Left photo: Tyler Shields, 2010. Right photo: Terry Richardson, 2005
Tyler Shields is a very successful man. Often referred to as "Hollywood's favorite photographer," a 2012 GQ profile of Shields claimed that "while big-shot Hollywood producers once demanded a trophy Banksy canvas to be hanging above their faux-Spanish fireplaces, now all they want is one of Shields' gloriously twisted photographs." According to a rep for Guy Hepner, a gallery that sells Shields's work, his photographs sell for between $5,000 and $15,000. Shields himself has claimed that his work sells for as much as $175,000. He's shot a host of celebrities, including Lindsay Lohan, Aaron Paul, and Demi Lovato, and his work has been exhibited in galleries around the world.
This level of success is surprising, given that a glance at his portfolio by anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of photography would reveal that a high number of his images look an awful lot like those of other photographers. And not obscure photographers, either. Many of his shots bear striking resemblances to the work of some of the most famous photographers of all time. His portfolio is like Julie and Julia but with The Photography Book.
And it's not just individual images. Tyler's series of models falling from the sky came several years after Ryan McGinley made this one of his visual trademarks; his series of retro Americana shot against bright blue skies came at least five years after that became the signature style of Alex Prager; his photos of lips are incredibly similar to shots by Rankin and Marilyn Minter.
Sure, this could be passed off as "creative inspiration," a la Richard Prince or Quentin Tarantino, but, as far as I can tell, Shields has never acknowledged that his photography is influenced by the work of others. In fact, in an interview a few years back, when he was asked what inspires him, Shields replied: "I just love to show people the way I see the world. It's important for me to explore the things that I see and create inspiration from the world around me. I don't look to other artists, just the world." In a different interview, Shields was asked if Terry Richardson is an inspiration, and answered: "To be honest I don't look at other peoples work I only know who Terry is because people have asked me if I like his work." [sic]
Henry Leutwyler, who took the photo of a ballerina's feet shown above right, once publicly called out Shields on Instagram for copying his work. "I had seen his image before but really only took action when companies like Hasselblad and Nowness began to promote it," Leutwyler told me. "I felt that it was necessary to defend my work and I did." Shields did not respond to Leutwyler.
Leutwyler seemed especially irked that Shields posted a backstory along with his photo, in which Shields claimed to have gotten the idea years ago. On his Instagram page, Shields wrote:
"I first tried to do this photo in 2009 and was not happy with the results, so I shelved it then in 2011 I tried it again and again was un happy (sic) so I let the idea go for a while hoping that it would come back around again every time I would meet a ballerina I would ask to see her feet, in 2014 while shooting another ballet project, I finally met someone who I thought would be able to introduce me to the right person to execute it exactly how I wanted, One of the things I realized when I finally got it after 6 years of trying was shooting it on a Hasselblad took it to another level and waiting 6 years was worth it."
Leutwyler told me he felt this backstory was "false."
"He has mentioned that it has taken him years to create this image but an image like this is documentary, not staged, and should not be staged," Leutwyler said. "The picture I took actually happened while I was working backstage on a book for NYC Ballet. Those are real ballerina feet and that is what they looked like after a performance. It was a fairly spontaneous shot in the end."
As Picasso (possibly) once said, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." So is Tyler Shields a great artist? I put that question to Paddy Johnson, art critic and founder of Art F City, who also lectures about art at schools like Yale, Rutgers, and Parsons.
Johnson told me that, in her opinion, Shields's copying of other's work was not the biggest problem with his photographs. "The issue with the work of Tyler Shields isn't so much that he's copying so many artists' work—though his shouldn't be an artistic model to aspire to—but that his appropriations replace the unique vision of the original with the cheap ploys of shock or nostalgia," she said in an email.
"Take the Sally Mann rip-off [pictured above]: you never forget the original for the child's defiant gaze while holding a cigarette," Johnson wrote. "She's not an adult, but she's at the stage where you can begin to see who she will become emerge. And in that photo, it seems almost a little too early. With Shields', there's no authenticity to the photograph. It's staged from beginning to end, so what you get is a child striking a pose with two women in the background gazing sexily at the camera. Are they what she is to become or are they just ornaments for the photo? Either way, Shields takes what began as an incredibly haunting photograph and turns it into an art postcard."
"I can't think of a dumber, more offensive interpretation of the original piece," Johnson added.
To be clear, I don't have any direct proof that Shields is stealing his ideas from the work of others. But I've collected a bunch of examples below so you can decide for yourself. Maybe it's like that episode of 30 Rock when Liz thinks she's invented a fake person to act as a scapegoat for her department's problems, but it turns out to be the name of a real person she'd read early in the day without realizing. Maybe Shields will see this post and be like, "Oh. Fuck."
I reached out to Shields for comment, but he did not respond.
Left photo: Tyler Shields, 2015. Right photo: Terry Richardson, 1998
Follow Jamie Lee Curtis Taete on Twitter.