Capturing the eerie remains of deserted office spaces, identities of phonesex operators, startling intensity of video gamers in action, and all manner of social fears, phobias and aspirations – Phillip Toledano is a wide-ranging artist known for posing at least as many questions as he answers through his absorbing photographic works. Wavering between a bare documentary approach and a flawlessly high-gloss, choreographed style, Toledano’s images can be intimately candid, exemplified by the ongoing ‘Days with my Father’ project, through to dramatic and fashion-photography inspired, evidenced by the arresting ‘Hope & Fear’ series.
“Each shot is part of an unfinished story – as though you’d accidentally picked up the phone and caught the middle of a conversation,” explains the endlessly entertaining Toledano, from his studio in New York. Describing his photographs as a “conscious and sub-conscious sandwich”, Toledano says he isn’t deliberately raising questions through his multi-faceted work, but rather presenting incomplete, ideally thought-provoking, ideas. “I like parts of stories rather than entire stories – they are somehow more intriguing to me. A lot of people ask me where I get my ideas from, and I really have no idea – Ideas are like gate-crashers, who knows how they arrive or from where,” Toledano considers. “The philosophy that drives me is ‘the unfinished question’. Since I was a kid I always wanted to say something of interest, to reveal something through what I created – I think I always wanted to affect or move people in some way.”
Growing up between England, where he was born, and Morocco, Toledano now based in New York, started experimenting with cameras as a child after convincing his parents of his photographic aptitude. “My parents bought me a camera when I was 10, once I proved I was really interested in photography,” Toledano remembers. “I was obsessed with Black and White photography, and shot a lot of film of buildings and abstract imagery with a little SLR. I wasn’t so interested in taking pictures of people unless there was a real context – that hasn’t changed.” After working as an Art Director at leading Advertising Agencies in the US for a decade, Toledano left the commercial world behind to pursue full time photography. With a number of published books of his photographs on sale at select retailers including the inimitable French super-boutique Colette, Toledano also consistently shoots for iconic publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Wallpaper, GQ, Interview Magazine and Esquire. While he is often commissioned to shoot fashion editorial, Toledano maintains he is principally interested in creating his own projects. “I think fashion photography can be amazing, but it often lacks context and strong ideas, and it’s centred around an assumed notion of beauty,” he reveals. “I’m not interested in beauty, I never have been – in fact, I think there’s too much beauty in the world.”
Equally disturbing and beautiful, Toledano’s “Hope & Fear” series is premised upon the “Internal fears and paranoia adrift in America”. Encroaching ears take over an upper body and most of a face, a man’s entire body is weighed down with multi-cultural babies, a mountain of breasts make up a woman’s torso, McDonalds wrapping finds alternate use as a Burqa, and Barbie legs by the hundreds envelop a woman’s original pins – these compelling visions make up a portion of a series Toledano describes as having, “So many possibilities. I’m interested in other people’s perceptions, in what people take away from the work”. No assumption is incorrect in the context of ‘Hope & Fear’, they are designed as much to incite a response as make a statement. “I’m a reductive photographer,” describes Toledano. “Sometimes I reduce the subject matter so much the works don’t even make sense anymore. In general I see myself as a documentary photographer – I’m reinterpreting and recording objects, people and moments in time.”
Moved by sociology and politics, much of Toledano’s work revolves around the current state of the US. The series, ‘Bankrupt’, reveals the poignant remnants scattered throughout hastily vacated offices; while ‘America – The Gift Shop’, is a scathing attack on American foreign policy, immigration and aggressive military action realised as installation pieces including a large-scale inflatable Guantanamo Bay cell and an Abu Ghraib bobble-headed doll. “I don’t feel I will concentrate on Politics so much anymore,” says Toledano, who, along with the rest of the thinking Western world, felt a wave of optimism come over him post the American election. “With Obama as president now, things just seem to make sense. I was so enraged by what was happening throughout the Bush administration that I felt I had to respond to it in some way. The total nonsense is over, so now I will have to concentrate on other subjects.” Currently focusing on two documentary style projects, Toledano has begun a series on people who have undergone drastic plastic surgery, “It’s just such a huge thing in America, it’s fascinating,” he enthuses, as well as a series focusing on unpopular school children, “These kids really want a voice,” he says. Not one to be pinned down or easily deciphered, Phillip Toledano and his evolving practice can be relied upon to continue contemplating the increasingly complex “paranoia and desires” of contemporary society.