Confronting Fear and the Future With Photography

Phillip Toledano employs the unexpected to expose the humor, heartbreak, and ambivalence of the human condition.

Photographer Phillip Toledano spends a lot of time figuring out what’s required of him as an artist. How, for instance, can he accurately reflect life and all its facets—humor, ambivalence, vulnerability, love?

He’s been taking photos since he was ten, starting with simulated Alpine landscapes created from magazine clippings and figurines. For National Geographic, Toledano lent his eye to the November 2016 story “Mars: Inside the High-Risk, High-Stakes Race to the Red Planet.” His vision created pictures that were nothing short of magical.

After the death of his parents a lot of his work became introspective and personal.

“The work I did with my father—that changed the course of the river for me,” he says, referring to Days With My Father, a chronicle of his aging father’s final years. “By that I mean, it's changed who I am and how I speak and what I do as an artist.”

As part of our "Through the Lens" series, we take a look at Toledano's work and find out what makes him tick.

Days With My Father chronicles the last years of Toledano's aging father. Following the death of his mother, the photographer was shocked to learn the extent of his father's severe memory loss. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILLIP TOLEDANO

What was the first picture you made that mattered to you?

When I was ten, I persuaded my parents to buy me a secondhand camera. The very first thing I did was cut out the backgrounds of ski magazines with all these Alpine vistas. I used them as backdrops. In the foreground, I put flour so It looked like snow. I’d make scenes by adding my figurines. Then I’d take pictures of the entire scene.

I remember my mum clearly saying, “This is going to be a waste of time.” So encouraging at a young age.

Toledano had a makeup artist transform him into different characters so that he could photograph himself experiencing every possible future.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILLIP TOLEDANO

If you weren't a photographer, what would you be?

I would still be in advertising. I’d be an art director or creative, which is what my last job was before I left when I was 34 to become a photographer.

Who is your greatest influence?

I suppose my father because he was an artist. I would watch him paint. I would watch him draw. We'd talk about his art. We'd go to his shows. I'd go to his studio. We'd go to museums and galleries. I guess it's through him that I became what I am.

What is the perfect photograph?

The perfect photograph has mystery and surprise. Otherwise, it's sort of one dimensional. It's not very filling. It has a low caloric value.

It should feel like a half-finished sentence. There is a magical chemical reaction that happens when you don’t give all the information to the viewer. They have to engage, anticipate, and make jumps.

For A New Kind of Beauty, Toledano photographed people who have invested in numerous plastic surgeries.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILLIP TOLEDANO

What fuels your passion for photography?

I like making things. I like exposing things.

I always wanted to be an artist. It wasn't specifically photography. As my career continues, photography is something in a toolbox. It's not the photography bit I like, it's the making bit that I like. 

What is your most treasured possession in the field?

Warm socks. I have a whole thing about cold feet. I hate the winter. I always have cold toes.

When I'm shooting I'm kind of in a trance. It doesn't matter how I'm feeling. Unless it's kind of extremely unbearable, I just don't care. The moment I put down the camera I'm moaning about my cold feet.

When Toledano was six, his nine-year-old sister, Claudia, died in an accident. She was almost never spoken of again. When his parents died, he found a collection of her belongings that their mother had kept. Photographing these objects allowed him to explore his relationship with his sister, as well as to understand his parents' pain and courage in the face of tragic loss.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILLIP TOLEDANO

What is the most important advice you could give to emerging photographers?

You don't have to find something unusual, you just have to say something new.

Ideas are the currency of this era. Everyone can copy style. Everyone can go and shoot homeless people or Cuba.

If you have unique ideas, you will be useful to people.

When Toledano’s daughter Loulou was born, he expected to feel a rush of love for her. He instead first saw her as an alien whose cries could not be appeased. This photo is from his project The Reluctant Father, in which he documents his transformation from "photographer to father.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILLIP TOLEDANO

Header image: Phil Toledano's book Maybe was a response to the unexpected death of his mother in 2006. He photographed his "future self" in various stages of experiencing the end of life.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILLIP TOLEDANO

You can follow Phillip Toledano on Instagram.

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