We’re relaxing into plush chairs, not sitting on beer crates. Tyler is wearing black skinny jeans and a white v-neck t-shirt, as opposed to a tuxedo. The Ray-Bans have come off, the definitive sign that this time, it’s serious.
Not much has changed since I first met Tyler Shields in June, yet the photography of his new series Submerged couldn’t be further from the vibrant and experimental series The Science of Colour. This time, Tyler and I discuss holding your breath, ancient mythology and chaining up actors. So, the usual.
Congratulations on the beautiful collection. I heard that the gallery had to convince you to do this series. Why were you so reluctant?
It wasn’t that I was reluctant as such: I knew I wanted to do an underwater series but I wasn’t sure of the technicalities. I didn’t know whether I had the time – I was in the middle of my movie – or how long it would take, and all the special equipment is just so expensive. I had the camera I wanted to use, but I had to get the housing made and all that shit. So the gallery just pushed me to go do it, to make that call and finally get it going.
How long did it take in the end?
Around four to six months. We were shooting on and off during that time, you can’t do this every day.
Did you go in with a really clear vision of what you wanted to achieve in this series?
I wanted to take the idea of the Suspense series and put it underwater, but I told the actors that I really wanted to push them and when we looked at the images after the first day, they were all so amazed by how they came out. You just can’t imagine how they’re going to turn out before they’re in front of you.
What makes the difference from image to image is the light – is that just sunlight or did you have lights beaming down?
No we used a lot of different methods. I wanted to control the sun so we built this crazy apparatus that gave me the power to do that. Only a certain bit of light would come through, so I was down the bottom surrounded by darkness and this beam of sunlight came down. I wanted to have sunlight because you can’t really duplicate it – the images that have sunlight and artificial light have a very different feel to them.
How deep did you go for the series?
Many were 15-17 feet or so, but others were much deeper.
What was it like capturing all these people diving around you?
It’s interesting for me because I’m sitting on the bottom, I’m locked in, so I watched their faces as they come down, barrelling to the bottom, trying to pose for a second then their face start to panic, thinking they’re so far down, they can’t breathe, they race to get back up. Of course this wasn’t enough so we started chaining people up, tying them up, chucking people in. We wrapped up this guy’s body completely in chains, threw him in and sent a girl down to get him.
I love the names of the images – Poseidon’s Desire, Orpheus and Eurydice, Amphitrite – are you particularly inspired by mythology?
I think there’s not a lot of mythology in our time now, you don’t meet a lot of people who know who Amphitrite and Helios are (Goddess of the Sea and God of the Sun, respectively) but that was how people lived for hundreds if not thousands of years, there’s just something so interesting about it. I finished the series and thought, “what the fuck should I title these”, and Poseidon was the first one that came to me and the rest followed on.
They’re clever names because you can see exactly how they relate to the image and just what you were thinking when you named them.
When they came out, I thought some of them looked just like 16th Century paintings, really old pieces of art, so that links back to mythology.
Some of the motions and expressions in the images are very classical too.
They are, aren’t they. I’m just glad someone noticed the titles. I also like it because people, when they buy my work, put them in their house and I never really realised how important the titles were to people who buy them. They put them in their house and they call it just by the names I gave them. I think about them in my own way but people who buy them are very strict and committed to those names.
Which was the hardest place to shoot out of this series?
The bathtub. It was a fucking nightmare, that’s why I only did two shots in it. The positioning was crazy, the bathtub’s not deep, definitely the hardest to do. Not the lake, not the river, none of that. Although I had no help in the river, I had to tread 30ft down, all the way with no help and no weight. It was at least 30 seconds to get down there, then I only had about three minutes to shoot before coming up again.
Was this series just a power trip for you?
Yes. (grins broadly) No! It wasn’t necessarily a power trip but it was so foreign in the sense that I was down there for so long, the average for about three minutes at a time and I did that around 100 times. That’s a long time to be underwater.
Once someone was struggling really badly so I walked over underwater and I lifted them up, held them above the water and walked them to the side. That for me was one of my favourite moments, holding a person and walking them to the side.
Was your skin all shrivelled and prune-y after you were done?
It wasn’t that bad actually because I wore this Arctic wetsuit which meant my body really wasn’t that wet, I would take it off and be dry immediately. I was fine! The actors were miserable.
Those dresses look seriously heavy.
Fuck, you have no idea. If you go into a lake in one of these dresses and you can’t swim, you’re fucked. They will kill you, death by dress. Almost happened, many times. They’re wearing dresses that weigh 80 pounds and we sewed them in to the dresses, it was a nightmare. But I will say that this series was the most fun I’ve done. Non stop hysterics, just being on the bottom of a giant body of water and having 10 people dive in and me just watching them being shipwrecked and seeing all the madness, so much fun. Having said that one of the girls was doing these crazy moves and she got vertigo, she was vomiting for two weeks.
You really messed them up, didn’t you?
Yeah! They were completely fucked up!
You’ve done a lot of colour now, but in different ways – Chromatic was so bold but this series is much darker. Are you moving back into darker tones?
This series is more about the dark side of glamour. People knew my work as such a specific thing but I’ve always been doing so much other stuff and that colour is now coming out because I’m just doing whatever I want to do. I have a lot of fun with my work and keep doing the most difficult things I can find. If you become successful, it’s easy to stay at home, sit in a studio and make life easy. But I want to push myself and my work. There will be a time when I physically won’t be able to do this stuff – when I’m 60, 80, who knows – when you can’t weigh yourself down underwater for four minutes. So I want to do it all now.
The series is definitely romantic and clearly your style, but it’s so dark and there’s this deadly undercurrent.
In my work, I just don’t know how to do anything normal. Anything I do, I always take it to another level and somewhere else. It could just be a nice thing, pretty and ethereal, but it became a competition. It became very strategized in terms of calculating how much time you have to breathe, working out how to get down, do something cool and come back up.
It’s a completely unique way of working because usually when you’re doing a shoot you’re not on the clock, you’re not restricted in this way, whereas here you have 30 seconds to get that shot. All the pressure was self-inflicted, everyone wanted so badly to be good. They were giving each other shit because not all of their shots are here in the gallery; it’s a friendly little rivalry.
Your work has gone through the four natural elements; air, in the Suspense series; earth, in the Holi powder in Chromatic; fire, in the Birkin series; and now water in Submerged. What’s next, space?
That’s what I’d love to do. Some of these images feel like they’re in space, like they have that kind of vibe. Obviously getting people into space could be pretty expensive and difficult. Hopefully in my lifetime I’ll get up there. At the end of the day you could always ride up there in a hot air balloon, it’s just getting down that’s the difficult bit.
Will there come a point when the crazy becomes too much and we’ll find you sitting in a studio?
To me the future is definitely movies, and you have to get out there for movies, you have to push those boundaries. You’ve put the idea of going to space in my mind now too. I would love to do that, maybe a space movie one day, though this series did feel a lot like zero gravity.
You don’t take it easy do you? You’re pushing and putting pressure on your skill and your body here.
No but I think people always appreciate you doing things like that, going that extra mile. If you spend $50,000-100,000 on an image you want to feel like it’s worth it. People get images that have been photoshopped, but they’re just fake. I’m not saying they should be cheaper, but if you’re going to pay that money for it, I should have almost died to bring it to you. I just think that makes it so much more worth it, much more interesting, knowing there’s a story behind it, more so than photoshopping an image from a studio shoot. I design and do everything for real, and it’s a great sense of accomplishment when you really go for it and see it up on the wall.
Submerged is on display at Imitate Modern until 9 November. For details check the gallery’s website.