By Jim Colton
“To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.” -- Susan Sontag
There is nothing like a father's love...unconditional, nurturing and ever present...even when they are gone. I lost my father, William J. "Sandy" Colton on Christmas Day in 2008, and there hasn't been a day that's gone by that I haven't thought about him. He was my father, my mentor and my best friend. Everything I know and value about the field of photojournalism, I owe to him.
And there is nothing like a brother's love. My brother, Jay Colton, a gifted photographer and caring photo editor, passed away five years ago at a workshop in Brazil. He was doing what he loved; passing the photographic torch of knowledge to eager young minds. I think of Jay often, and of our sibling rivalry that pushed us both to greater heights and accomplishments.
Losing them both in such a short period of time only made me appreciate more, the gift that they equally possessed; passion. Their love for the craft was evident in everything they did. I miss the twinkle in pop's eye and Jay's impish smile. And everything I do in this industry is in their honor. I proudly bear the Colton name.
When we lose people we love, we all react differently...yet with the same profound loss. Some mourn silently while others are fueled by their loss and pay homage to their loved ones through their work...including documenting the last days of their loved one's lives. It takes great strength and fortitude to be able to say "thank you" and "good bye" at the same time.
Phillip Toledano did so, poignantly, respectfully and compassionately with his tributes, "Days with My Father" and "When I Was Six." Two deeply personal projects, which turned into books; honoring and celebrating the lives of his father and sister, respectively.
Toledano considers himself to be a conceptual artist. His work varies in medium, from photography to sculpture to painting. His themes are primarily socio-political, although lately, he states on his website, "I’ve strayed into the deeply personal."
His latest work, “Maybe” which became an independent film released earlier this year entitled, "The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano" is both deeply personal and amusingly disturbing...if that's even possible. In the project, Toledano - based on DNA testing and conversations with fortune tellers - actually becomes future versions of himself with the help of make-up artists and prosthetics experts.
When he's not projecting himself into the future, he's also an accomplished photographer with solo and group exhibitions the world over. He's the author of several books and has given back to the industry as faculty at the Eddie Adams Workshop...and in my opinion, is one of the funniest human beings I have ever met.
This week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the multi-talented, introspective and often hilarious, photographic soothsayer, Phillip Toledano.
Jim Colton: Tell us about your early years. How did you first get interested in photography? Who or what were your earliest influences?
Phillip Toledano: I’d have to say my father. He was an artist, so I grew up watching him paint, going to his studio, his openings. The first photo book I ever saw was a Bill Brant book, which I originally looked at because it had photos of naked women. Eventually I got past my smutty nature, and began to be amazed by what he was doing.
JC: You say you consider yourself a conceptual artist and that your ideas determine the execution. Where do your ideas come from?
PT: I have no clue where my ideas come from, which is slightly scary. I’m not sure if any of my ideas are crazy - I always feel as though I’m not going far enough out. This is the only metaphor that makes sense to me. I'm sitting at home. The doorbell rings, and it's an idea…a gatecrasher…one that won't leave until I’ve done it justice.
JC: What was the craziest idea that you had come to fruition?
PT: It's hard to say really. I suppose my latest project and book, 'Maybe' has been the most ambitious. Each shoot was like making a small movie. I had to find the locations, get the props, find a wardrobe stylist, cast extras, and then sit for 4 or 5 hours to have the latex prosthetics applied to become an older version of myself. Since my assistants were shooting me, I had to make sure they were getting what I wanted, whilst giving a good performance in front of the camera. It was bloody exhausting!
JC: The "Team Photo" of you and your students at the 2014 Eddie Adams Workshop was hysterical, one of the best ever! What can you recall of your experience as an instructor at the workshop...and of the workshop in general? Will you be returning again this year?
PT: I loved doing it. What was interesting was working in the context of photojournalism - it’s VERY hard to be a photojournalist; there are so many rules. It’s much easier to be an artist; where you can make it up as you go along. Would I return? Yes! (But don’t I have to be invited?)
JC: Your portrait series, "A New Kind of Beauty" (See link below) is an intense look at surgically altered subjects. What drew you into this world as a topic?
PT: I was taking care of my father at the time, and thinking about death and mortality constantly. I became fascinated with plastic surgery because it was the opposite of my experience with my dad. It was the denial of aging. I think I was really talking about my own fear of death (which later became the project “Maybe”) I was also interested in the idea of post humanism.
I’m interested in what we define as beauty, when we choose to create it ourselves. Beauty has always been a currency, and now that we finally have the technological means to mint our own, what choices do we make?
Is beauty informed by contemporary culture? By history? Or is it defined by the surgeon’s hand? Can we identify physical trends that vary from decade to decade, or is beauty timeless?
When we re-make ourselves, are we revealing our true character, or are we stripping away our very identity?
The idea that at some stage, we’ll be able to do whatever we want to our bodies - beauty, ethnicity, none of it will matter at some point, because it will all be fluid.
JC: I love your series “Kim Jong Phil” (See link below) where you inserted yourself in place of world dictators. Tell us a little about that process, not only about its inception but the physical task of blending your likeness into these paintings and sculptures.
PT: I was trying to explain how I function as an artist, which, as it turns out, is very similar to being a dictator-narcissistic, and delusional.
Just like a dictator, I must live in a closed loop of self-delusion. A place where my words and ideas always ring true. A gilded daydream of grandiosity. There can be no room for doubt. I must be convinced that I have something vital to say. I must believe that the world is waiting in keen anticipation to hear my message.
I don’t make work for other people, but as an artist, I need to be in dialogue with the world that exists beyond my overpopulated cranium. I’ve concluded that to be effective - to be functional - I must guzzle an eye-popping cocktail of delusion and narcissism.
I found photos on the web of North Korean propaganda art of Kim Jong-il, shot myself in the same position as the dictator, and then sent the images to China, and had then copied and turned into oil paintings, but they replaced Kim Jong-il with me, hence Kim Jong Phil!
JC: In "America the Gift Shop" you delve into other media, like sculpture and 3 dimensional arts. How does a "concept" like this come to you? Do you foresee a collection before you start or are they individual ideas that eventually become a series?
PT: "America the Gift Shop" is an installation project that reflects the foreign policy of the Bush/Cheney years through the fun-house mirror of American commerce.
My palette is the vernacular of retail tourism. Bobble head figurines. A snow globe. A cookie jar. Postcards. T-shirts, neon signs, and chocolate bars. These are all things that make up our daily existence. They have a familiar intimacy. And that’s why they make perfect vehicles to shock, disturb, and remind. Once the sugar coating of the ordinary dissolves, we are left with the grim truth about where America has been as a nation.
I really have no idea how the idea came to me. I was pretty angry about the Iraq War, and wanted to do something about it. Once I have the idea, then I figure out what all the bits that populate the world will be in pretty short order…then the trick is finding people to make everything for me.
JC: Your project (and eventual book) "Days with My Father" (See links below) is a deeply personal collection of images documenting your father's last days. How long did you work on the project? Was it difficult to edit the book considering the personal connection?
PT: It was a year after the death of my mum, before I began to take photos of my father and me. After she died, I realized how much she’d been shielding me from my father’s mental state. He didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but he had no short-term memory, and was often lost.
I took him to her funeral, but when we got home, he’d keep asking me every 15 minutes where my mother was. I had to explain over and over again, that she had died. This was shocking news to him. Why had no-one told him? Why hadn’t I taken him to the funeral? Why hadn’t he visited her in the hospital? He had no memory of these events.
After a while, I realized I couldn’t keep telling him that his wife had died. He didn’t remember, and it was killing both of us, to constantly re-live her death. I decided to tell him she’d gone to Paris, to take care of her brother, who was sick.
I shot for two years - until he died. I didn’t shoot very much though…maybe 200-300 photos. I’ve always shot very sparingly, so it makes the editing process very easy. I usually have a sense of what I’m trying to get when I shoot, so I don’t spray and pray much.
JC: In yet another tangent of your creative spectrum, you recently finished an independent film called "The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano" (See link below) where you "project" yourself into possible fates that await you in the future. Was it a cathartic experience for you? I understand that this project was a little "worrisome" for the Toledano family. Tell us more!
PT: Actually, ‘Sad Fates’ is a documentary film that follows the making of my latest book ‘Maybe’ over the course of three years. ‘Maybe’ came about after the death of my parents. I became very apprehensive about what life had in store for me. So I decided to try and anticipate all the darkest possible turns that my future might take over the next 30 or 40 years, based on a DNA test that would tell me what illnesses I might get, and conversations with fortune tellers.
Then I worked with a prosthetics expert, to become all those versions of myself. It was hard for many reasons. Seeing yourself in the worst possible light, economically, socially, and physically is frightening, but I felt I had to confront my fears, or watch them grow. And yes, at the end, 'Maybe' was extremely cathartic - it was an exorcism of sorts. It’s an odd way to fix yourself I guess.
Not to sound too melodramatic, but when I began that work, I was not in a very good place. My father had died recently, and with my daughter Loulou's birth, I was feeling very much at sea. Carla, my wife, was quite (rightly) worried that confronting my darkest possible fates would tip me over the edge. It was a risk, but one that was worth taking, I think.
JC: Your latest project and book, "When I Was Six" (See link below) again is a deeply personal recollection of the loss of your sister Claudia when she was nine and you were six. How did this project come about and what can the viewer expect?
PT: When your parents die, they leave with boxes both literal and metaphorical than you can choose to open or not. When I was cleaning out my parents place, I found a box of things that belonged to Claudia - everything to do with her life and her death. I’d never seen most of it before. After she died, we never really spoke of her again.
I have no memories of my life after my sister’s death for a few years, other than an obsession with space, planets, and distant universes. Perhaps it was a way of being somewhere else, distant. Half of the images in the book are of the imagined landscapes that saved me, when I was a child that needed saving. The other half, of things that belonged to my sister. Things that explain who she was, how she loved my parents, and what happened after her death.
I decided that at 44, it was time to get to know myself better. It took me several years to find the courage to open the box. In it, I found, my sister, the courage of my parents, and a sense of the extraordinary pain they bore, and hid, so well.
JC: What's next on the horizon for Mr. Toledano? Are there any projects that you are at liberty to talk about at this time?
PT: There are a few bits and pieces, but I’m just recovering from putting out two new books this year! Although, I already feel the pressure to make something new.
JC: Any last thoughts you'd like to share with our readers or sage advice you could offer to anyone starting in the field of creative arts?
PT: Don’t listen to anyone. Resist the gravitational pull of the norm. Make crazy shit. And be prepared to eat breadsticks for a few years.
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Phillip Toledano website: http://mrtoledano.com/
A New Kind of Beauty: http://www.amazon.com/A-New-Kind-Of-Beauty/dp/1907893105
Kim Jong Phil: www.kimjongphil.com
Days with my Father: www.dayswithmyfather.com
MediaStorm: A Shadow Remains: http://mediastorm.com/publication/a-shadow-remains
The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano: http://seftel.com/toledano/
When I was Six: www.dewilewis.com/products/when-i-was-six
Twitter & Instagram: @mrtoledano
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Jim ColtonEditor www.zPhotoJournal.com