Tyler Shields: Self-Portrait (2014)
According to Andrea Blanch, keen to address criticism of her friend's work from the get-go, the provocateur often receives a bum rap. That is to say, they're often subject to false accusations or unfair judgements; dismissed as a fraud who "peddles in shock or wears the shallow guise of edginess".
But the true provocateur - such as Hollywood's favourite photographer, Tyler Shields - knows how to turn incitement into a fearless form of art that awakens lesser mortals from their mundane slumber and the "consumptive malaise of soul-grinding routine". Provocation, in its highest form, is thus not merely a means of challenging somebody to react; it's also a way of filling them with "passionate exuberance". Provocation is a vitalism; it brings people to life and not simply to the boil.
And so, whilst some of the images produced by Tyler Shields deliberately aim to shock and unsettle, what raises his oeuvre above that of his lesser-skilled contemporaries, is that they also "arrest us with the magnitude of their depth and complexity".
I have to say, with respect to Ms. Blanch, whose own work with a camera far exceeds anything produced by Tyler Shields in my view, this really is so much guff. Unfortunately, Shields - who has what might be termed a healthy ego - buys into this fearless genius nonsense and seems happy to blow his own trumpet when he can't find someone to do it for him. For this is a man who unabashedly places his work not in the world of fashion and celebrity culture, but the tradition of Baroque art - less Terry Richardson and more to do with the transcendental clarity of Caravaggio.
And this is a man who aggressively asserts his ownership of images, threatening prosecution and multi-million dollar fines to anyone who infringes his copyright, despite the fact that, as one commentator has noted, a brief 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".
Now, as a rule, I'm not greatly concerned with notions of originality; all great artists steal, as Picasso said. However, this doesn't mean that all great thieves are artists and what does irritate is to see a powerful image rendered banal. An act of homage or even a playful pastiche should not result simply in an inferior copy or perpetuate a lazy form of nostalgia.
Unfortunately, as art critic Paddy Johnson writes with reference to Tyler's version of the famous Sally Mann photo of a young girl smoking (Candy Cigarette, 1989), Shields often "takes what began as an incredibly haunting photograph and turns it into an art postcard". His re-imaginings disappoint not because they rip-off, but because they devalue and diminish.
Andrea Blanch, 'The Fearless Artist', Foreword to Tyler Shields, Provocateur, (Glitterati Inc., 2016).
Jamie Lee Curtis Taete, 'Is Celebratory Photographer Tyler Shields Inspired, Or Copying Other Artists?', Vice, Jan 15, 2016. Click here to read. The remarks by Paddy Johnson are also found in this article.
Thanks to Simon Solomon for bringing the work of Tyler Shields to my attention and kindly gifting me a copy of Provocateur.