Interview: Phil Toledano

© Phil Toledano, from the series Bankrupt

Phillip Toledano was born in London. His work is self-described as socio-political, and varies in medium, from photography to installation. He has published four monographs of his work including A New Kind of Beauty, Days With My Father, Phonesex, and Bankrupt. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, and Wallpaper among others.

Note: As part of an ongoing attempt to connect my photography students in Medellín to the broader photography world, a question from one of them is included in this interview, cited below; it's a practice that will be repeated in future interviews.

fototazo: So let's get the most important, journalistically rigorous question out of the way first: why and how did your site become "MR" Toledano?

Phil Toledano: I'm not really sure. Like many things I do, it just seemed funny at the time. I wish I could give a deeper reason, but sadly, I'm not that deep.

f: Twice I've sat down to look at Days With My Father with students as a reference for one of their own projects and both times they've cried while looking at the images. What is it, do you think, that makes people respond so strongly and viscerally to the project?

PT: I've thought about that a great deal. Perhaps because it's a book that reflects much of how we live. Laughter, sadness, beauty, love, frustration - all the ingredients that make up the bouillabaisse of life. Oh - and honesty. Above all, honesty. To me, there's no point talking about this kind of thing, if you don't talk about it with unalloyed candor.

© Phil Toledano, from Days With My Father

[question from student Andres Sánchez]: When what we are documenting is a very personal and emotional event in our lives, what is the process that you, as an artist, follow: do your emotions disconnect from the situation or do they engage further with it? The question comes to me because my project is very personal and many times I am not able to make a photograph, as it is my mom who is crying or my brother who is suffering from pain.

PT: When I was taking photos of my father, I was very careful not to let the process of taking photos overwhelm just being with my dad - of taking care of him, and loving him. So as a consequence, I took very few photos overall, it's something that I've never regretted. It was a bit odd, mentally, to go from being with him, to suddenly thinking about framing, or the light, etc. So I would be in two minds - half son, half photographer. I think the trick (if there is a trick) is not to approach this kind of work as a photographer, doing a "project." Go, and be with your mum. And just happen to bring a camera along. Most of the time, I never took any pictures at all, and it made it all a lot easier.

f: Did you share the images with your father while he was alive? If so, what were your conversations with him like about the photographs?

PT: I did. He'd ask me what I was working on. I'd tell him, and he'd love the idea. Then, I'd show him the photos, and he’d tell me they were terrible. It was all really quite funny, in a heartbreaking sort of way. But then again, a lot of those three years were like that.

© Phil Toledano, from the series America the Gift Shop

f: You use a dark humor in a number of projects, especially America the Gift Shop and The United States of Entertainment. What do you think about the use of humor in your work specifically and what is the power generally of humor to facilitate a project?

PT: I think humor is really missing in a great deal of art. In fact, the work of Maurizio Cattelan really inspired me to let my art be funny, because as anyone will tell you, I'm a hilarious person. I think humor in some ways can be extremely effective. Laughter crowbars open doors that are unwilling to be opened.

© Phil Toledano, from the series The United States of Entertainment

f: How did you meet and organize the subjects for A New Kind of Beauty? What has been their response to the images?

PT: I found my first subject through an acquaintance on Facebook. She was very into the idea, and helped me find other people. Then, every time I shot someone, I'd ask them if they knew someone else...How did they react to the images? Well, initially, not enormously enthused. Most of the people I shot were very used to seeing glamorous sexy photos of themselves. The images were beautiful, but not sexy. So they had to get used to the idea.

© Phil Toledano, from the series A New Kind of Beauty

f: Did you feel at the end of creating A New Kind of Beauty that the subjects are forerunners of aesthetic ideas that will become more assimilated in society? Or a separate physical aesthetic pursued by a smaller community? Did making the work shift your ideas about beauty in our society?

PT: Just as getting a tattoo or having your tongue pierced was outlandish 20 years ago, I feel that in 20 or 30 years from now, the idea of what it means to look human may be very different from what it means now. So yes, forerunners.

© Phil Toledano, from the series Hope & Fear

f: Your projects, on the surface, look quite different, and as an artist you're omnivorous, moving from personal to political, intimate portraits to landscapes to social commentary. Do you believe that there are thematic threads that connect and run across bodies of work?

PT: You’re quite right, and I suspect that's quite confusing to people. But there are some distinctive threads that are very visible to me. Delusion (Bankrupt, Phonesex, America the Gift Shop) is one of them. I'm very interested in how we lie to ourselves, each other, and allow ourselves to be lied to by the authorities. Mortality (Days With My Father, A New Kind of Beauty, and a new project I’m working on), of course, is another theme.

© Phil Toledano, from the series Arctic Circle

f: Your work has been successful in terms of publishing and exhibiting. The variety is refreshing and counters, perhaps, a common idea that an artist needs to package their work in a fairly concise aesthetic package to be commercially viable. Is it generally a myth that the artist should work to create a tight aesthetic vision and presentation if they are interested in taking part in the gallery world and art market?

PT: I don’t think it's a myth at all. The world generally likes people to live in very small boxes with easy to read labels on them. You're the guy who takes photos of coffee mugs. Or the woman who paints cats. So I think that I've probably made things harder for myself, but there's not much I can do about that. The art comes out of me the way it wants. Either the world will like it, or not...

© Phil Toledano, from the series Phonesex

f: You’ve gone through the book making process four times with three different presses. What have you learned from repeating that process and from working with several presses that you would pass on?

PT: That's an interesting question to which I have a very uninteresting answer. Which is: NOTHING! When I first published Bankrupt with Twin Palms, I thought the world would change for me - what I've realized is that each new project, each new book, is another step upwards, towards...something.

f: Is your house strewn with objects made for Kim Jong Phil? If so, what do guests think?

PT: I do have the Kim Jong Phil statues at home. For a long time, my 3-year-old daughter just assumed that all other statues were of her father.

© Phil Toledano, from the series Kim Jong Phil