Jonathan Blaustein interviewed Phil Toledano for us.
JB: I wanted to talk to you because I’m interested in looking at photographers who innovate by connecting their work to their ideas to their style to their individuality to their fearlessness. And that doesn’t happen by accident. I believe individuality is the key to our future success.
PT: I couldn’t agree with you more. The only thing that makes us different is the quality of our ideas or the individuality of our ideas.
JB: There are so many people who are afraid right now, who’ve seen their incomes evaporate, who’ve seen their lifestyles evaporate. I’ve read, but could not of course substantiate, that there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of working photographers who’ve lost their livings. I talked to a lot of people this Fall and I solicited a lot of opinions and people heaped them upon me and there is so much fear right now. I don’t know if people have caught their breath coming into the New Year or not or if people are buying cameras again, but clearly we’re living through, and have lived through, a fairly unique time, in which the radical shift was so great that people were just adrift. And watching one’s livelihood disappear is not something I would wish on anybody. So, lets talk about fearlessness. To me, it’s not that people don’t have fear, the people that we might call “Fearless,” it’s more that they’re willing to acknowledge the fear, talk to it, understand it, and then surmount it.
PT: Or you could just be idiotic enough…
Actually, this is interesting, because I’m working on a project right now and I think about this all the time. What drives me to be an artist, to make the work I do and I think that a large part of being an artist is being delusional. You have to be totally delusional and slightly narcissistic. You have to be delusional to think that you’re going to think up stuff and people are going to be interested in it.
JB: Well, I wouldn’t use that word, delusional, personally.
PT: I use it for me.
JB: I would say “ego.” Clearly, it has to be there. Anyone who, chooses to take it out of the shoebox and put it on the wall, and say, yeah, you ought to look at that, there’s a confidence and an ego, and perhaps a sense of delusion.
PT: The parallel I draw is it’s like being a dictator. You’re an artistic dictator. You create ideas, you create themes, you create concepts. You create this world, and then you have to populate that world with believers. Much like a dictator does. For me, it’s delusion, because you have to believe, you have to delude yourself into believing that what you’re saying is of importance, not only to you because you’re interested in it, but it’s of interest to the world at large. That, for me, is delusional because I don’t have any fucking idea if people are interested in what I have to say. I’m interested, and I’m just going to assume that somehow, other people will be interested. That may not happen.
JB: But you don’t make it for your audience, you make it for yourself.
PT: You’re right, but for me, part of being an artist is understanding that at some point, there’s going to be an audience. I’m not interested in doing stuff only for myself, if it would end up only in my closet. I have to make the art that I make, but the second part of the equation is that there are going to be people who want to look at it. For me, I’ve always wanted to do stuff that speaks to people, that addresses issues, that talks about the world we live in, that makes people feel things. I remember saying, even when I was a kid, that if I could just make stuff that made people think differently about stuff, then I would feel happy.
JB: I read that and I’d like to dig a little deeper into it. What I’m curious about, is the decision that you made and correct me if I’m wrong, but you worked in advertising as an art director/creative director for about a decade, right?
JB: One can imagine that you were well compensated. It’s not a chump change industry. I don’t need to see your bank book, but can we assume that it was at least somewhat lucrative in a way that it created a lifestyle for you?
PT: Yes, a lot more lucrative than being a photographer.
JB: Well, that didn’t just happen by accident.
PT: Fuck, you’re making like 200, 300, $400,000 a year when you’re doing that. Here’s what drove me out of that. I realized that I had, at best, a mediocre career in advertising. And I wasn’t interested in that idea. I think about that a lot, particularly in light of my parents dying, that we only have one go at the whole thing. You’ve just got to lunge at whatever it is that you think you might be good at. If it doesn’t work out… I mean it’s sad, because as you get older, you realize that everything is a cliché, and that all the clichés are true.
JB: Thank you, because there’s my money quote. That’s what I wanted to hear you say. That’s what I’ve come to believe myself. And the more I’ve embraced the idea of risk-taking, and having confidence in my own ability, and digging deeper into what I need to know about myself, it has translated into people taking notice.
PT: It’s a good question, man. Here’s the thing. I remember, when I started being a photographer, I remember thinking this very clearly, I was going to put together a portfolio of stuff that interested me and only me, and if people were interested in it, then that would be some kind of divine sign that I was on to something. I talk to people all the time, particularly when I go and talk to students, and it’s amazing to me how many kids and people feel that they have to create work… they’ll look at the market and create work that fits for that market, and I think that’s a terrible, terrible mistake. And what happens then is what you just said, hundreds of thousands of people lose their job. Because what happens is they’re not being original thinkers, they’re just providing content that already exists in a slightly different form. You can’t do that.
JB: Well, certainly not anymore, no…
PT: I don’t think you can ever do that, if you want to be…well, I guess it depends on what you want to be. For me, I just like to make art, so…even if you want to be a photographer that’s surprising and have a long career, you have to have something new, you’ve got to say something new, and it can’t be a technique, it can’t be cross-processing or desaturation, or whatever the fuck it is. You know what I mean? It has to be something inside your noggin. It has to be an interesting idea.
That’s my advice. Do exactly the thing you want to do. It’s really hard, to separate yourself from the gravitational pull of the norm, and the gravitational pull of what sells. For me, that’s the only way that you’re ever going to be successful.
JB: OK, but when I look at your work sequentially, on Mr. Toledano, with “Bankrupt” and the early work, I see work that is really stylish and graphically interesting, but I didn’t see a lot of YOU. I didn’t see a lot of soul or emotion or personality, I saw, “Hey, this looks like art and the subject matters are interesting.” I mean, empty buildings sure, but I didn’t see you… they’re very commercial. And then, all of a sudden, we hit the thing that everyone wants to talk about, the “Days with my Father” project, and it’s like, BOOM. GUT PUNCH. THERE HE IS. There was something in the early pictures that was lacking. To me, pictures can’t be visceral, can’t communicate emotion if they’re not embedded with emotion.
Days With My Father
PT: It’s interesting, I was talking about that yesterday, with a friend of mine. I think, certainly, that since “Days with my Father,”… well, you see all of those ideas, like “Bankrupt”, or video gamers, you’re right in the sense that there’s not a lot of me in them, but it’s a cerebral kind of me. There are different volumes of Phil, so there are ideas that I find really intellectually interesting, and there are things that are like, my soul, nakedly exposed, right? Like “Days with my Father,” or “America, the Gift Shop” is also very me. I mean, did you see that project? (An installation series that showed at Hous Projects in NYC)
JB: Yeah, I saw the pictures of it, sure.
PT: That’s also very me. They’re all aspects of me, it’s just that it depends on what you respond to as a person. Some people find the intellectual aspect more interesting than the emotional aspect.
JB: What I respond to and what I consider the best work is that which marries both. There was a lack of humanism in the early pictures. In the Gamers I thought the pictures were kind of cruel. You’re looking down on these people, literally, and they look really bad. They’re unflattering photographs, and of course I understand the idea, and I don’t want to nitpick here, because they were nice pictures. The difference is, and this comes back to fearlessness, that you made a decision, as an artist, to take a big risk and you decided to bring yourself, your family and your life into the work. I’m a big fan of the plastic surgery photos, “A New Kind of Beauty.” I saw them in Fraction, and I love them. To me, they’re a marriage of the idea and the execution. There is a humanism in the way you’re relating to these people, a dignity that is there, despite the fact that there is an overt sense of criticality for the phenomenon. There’s restraint.
A New Kind Of Beauty
PT: I would say, there’s never been any sense of trying to criticize what’s happening. I’m just interested in what’s happening, and the direction we’re going as a race, evolutionarily speaking. Look, you can’t look at that work and not expect people to feel emotion or repugnance. That’s not my intention at all. I just want to make that clear. It’s too easy to criticize that stuff in the same way that with the “Phonesex” work it would have been to easy to make that a joke.
JB: Of course. But you can’t fake dignity.
PT: I’m with you on that.
JB: Most people are going to say, “Hey, look at the freaks.”
JB: And you know that, but you didn’t. And to me, that’s why the work is great. So what I’m suggesting is that in looking at the trajectory of the work, what I saw was there was a moment in which you decided to take a chance as an artist.
PT: I don’t think you’re wrong on that. I mean,”A New Kind of Beauty,” was done as the same time as the stuff with my Father.
JB: They were concurrent? I didn’t know that.
PT: Yeah, they’re very connected really. Because in those pictures with my Dad, I was essentially waiting for him to die and I was thinking about mortality all the time. And so of course I started thinking about ‘What is plastic surgery if not the denial of death and aging?’ And then I started thinking about evolution, and where we’re going as a human race, and the things we’re doing to ourselves.
JB: Let me come back to that. I’m hoping with this conversation that we can encourage a bunch of people to figure out how connect to their inner abilities, to their inner risk-taking, so that they can shift. What happens in recessions, the end result of shakeouts like this is that people lose their jobs, they lose their livelihoods, and then out of necessity, out of desperation, they scratch their heads and say, OK, I’ve got no choice, there’s no job being offered to me, how can I make a job, what am I good at, what do I care about, where is my passion?
PT: You know what I say to that, man, is you make a job by surprising people. I know that sounds simplistic, but ultimately, the reason, that “Days with my Father” and “A New Kind of Beauty” are interesting to people is that they’re surprising. They happen to relate to people in a particular way that I never thought they would. It’s originality that surprises people. The last four projects were totally inward facing, and are much more interesting for me to do.
JB: What I saw was a guy who’s making interesting enough pictures with smart ideas and then all of a sudden, they became great. That’s part of an evolution as an artist and as a person. But when I went into the backstory, I saw that you had in fact been in the advertising industry, you knew it in and out, and the fact that the work was graphic and somewhat easy. It almost seemed to me that you were doing what you knew how to do, making it look good, and then you committed to the process, you had that ah, ha moment where it just kicked into gear, and it’s all came together.
PT: What you were saying about the pictures being graphic and all that stuff doesn’t have anything to do with advertising, ever since I was 12 or 13, I’ve been taking black and white photographs of buildings. They were very graphic, and very architectural and that’s all I took pictures of. I was just obsessed with that for 15 years. I never liked pictures of people because I found them uninteresting. And, generally speaking, I still find that without an umbrella idea over a portrait series, I don’t find it that fascinating. That’s why “Phonesex” is interesting to me, because they’re phonesex operators, or people who’ve had plastic surgery. But I’ve never been very interested in random portraits of people, you know, like the old guy with the wrinkly face, and it’s black and white, super contrast.
Beauty is not enough for me it’s interesting for 10 minutes and I need more than that. If those pictures of my father were not a whole body of work and part of a thing I wanted to do to remember my Dad, to say goodbye in my own way, it would not be so fascinating.
JB: Of course. It’s about ideas. Let’s shift gears for a minute. You just showed these photographs, “A New Kind of Beauty,” at Klompching and you had a solo show in New York for the Fall season and you actually debuted the work on the Internet. You have just lived through what is the lifetime goal for many people. I can’t speak for everybody, but if you ask many, many photographers, the idea of the big, gleaming, New York City solo show, in the Fall season, is it. And clearly, though, for you it isn’t it, because your life didn’t end. You didn’t punch the clock and say, “All right. I’m out. I’m going to Tahiti, bitches. WooHoo.”
PT: I’ll just order some fucking donuts, watch TV, I’m done.
JB: Let’s talk about how your vision and your goals evolve when you’ve done something grand like “Days with my Father.” I’ve heard the number 1 million people? Right?
PT: A million and a half, actually.
JB: A million and a half? Well, Mazel Tov. OK. Now, I read a lot of your interviews, and you’re constantly defending the idea of intuitive. You’re like, “Don’t roll your eyes, but, it’s intuitive.” Or, “I know this sounds silly, but…I made something that spoke to people.” And then I read something where you said, “I want to get people thinking. I want to impact culture in a mass way.”
PT: But I haven’t done any of that.
JB: That’s where I’m headed. So I want to know how you want to use this platform, what do you think of the artist’s responsibility and ability to enact change? What aspect of culture would you want to change?
PT: I might be naive, or I might have misconstrued the idea of art, but I always assumed the idea of art was to make the world better and to be an accessible, interesting thing for everyone. Exactly why a project like “Days with my Father,” had a million and a half people look at it, and the reason why it turned into a book, and the reason why it’s going to be a movie now, which is kind of insane…
JB: Oh my god. A movie? Am I breaking that? Is that an exclusive?
PT: You can break that.
JB: Well, I think your work reached an incredibly cohesive and gorgeous level when you allowed the humanism and optimism in, and it married with the conceptualism. So how can you encourage others. Do you even have to? Is your story enough? Will people say, what can I make work about that matters?
PT: Listen, there’s two different things. It’s tough. I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier, about the first half of my work versus the second. When I first did Bankrupt, I really thought that work mattered. What those pictures were supposed to be talking about were the human cost of economic collapse, and I thought they were portraits of people without the people in them. But I understand the the emotional reaction to them is going to be totally different from the emotional reaction to “Days with my Father.” Or the series about my kid, or the plastic surgery stuff. You know, for me, I feel like I’m not going far enough out. I think to myself, I am just so reigned in. I am just not far enough out. I’m not on the edge enough. I’m not pushing myself far enough. I’m constrained in my work. But I have made some progress. It’s all about releasing. And that’s why the delusional part is so important, because you just can’t give a shit. The moment you start caring, that’s when your work gets shit. Caring about other people. Caring about the reaction. Any of that stuff.
JB: But almost everybody in the world cares deeply about what other people think of them.
PT: Yeah, but that’s the problem, because I care enormously. My wife is always abusing me, because if someone writes something good about my work, I’ll read it and re-read it, because it makes me feel great. If some geezer in Shanghai who I’ve never met likes my pictures, fantastic. But at the same time, I’m incredibly driven to do work that I’m interested in, even though I feel like I don’t make work that sells very much. I mean, plastic surgery, it’s very hard to buy that work and the stuff with my father, it sold very well as a book, but as a gallery show that’s very hard to buy. And the project I’m just about to finish, the stuff about self-delusion, nobody’s going to buy that fucking stuff. It’s all oil paintings and bronze sculpture.
JB: It’s interesting. I don’t exactly know where to go with that, because I’ve said some things critical of the gallery industry in New York, despite the fact that like anybody else, I’d love to have the work on the wall. I’m no hippocrite… we like the white walls, we like the acclaim, we want the respect, but we want the income as well. It’s a hard mix. The commodification versus the purity of the ideas and the objects. I’ve got a heap of questions about that. I know Rob’s audience skews heavily towards working, commercial photographers. I’m curious about how you balance the two.
PT: The commercial work is not that different from my art. In the sense that they’re all ideas. It’s like I said before, it’s just a question of volume. Doing editorial work is fantastic, because it’s kind of like going to the gym. I’m exercising my mind. There are doors that have been opened to me into subject matter and thoughts that I might not have had if someone hadn’t said, “Hey, can you just take a picture of this thing for us.” It’s interesting. Like that plastic surgery thing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I shot a photograph of a guy who’d had a lot of work done for a magazine in England. And when I took his picture, I thought, Fuck, this is fascinating, I’m really mesmerized. I find the editorial stuff really valuable, because it keeps me alive, in a way.
PT: No, I’m talking mentally, but yes, also financially. But mentally it does too.
JB: I don’t know that we can do justice to it at this point, but the competing motivations of having to pay bills and commodify our ideas, versus trying to get them out there in the purest way possible as art…
PT: But I don’t think they’re competing. I think that’s where the problem lies. I think that’s where people make mistakes. The only reason I have any career in editorial at all is because when magazines see that I can conceptualize stuff in a very peculiar kind of way, and that’s a very valuable commodity. But that’s exactly the way my art is. The root of what I do is exactly the same. It’s just the way it manifests itself, whether it’s art or editorial may be slightly different, but the root is the same. I think that’s the problem. People feel that their art and their commercial stuff should be different. I think they should be the same. And when you make that realization, then you can be successful, I think.
JB: I noticed that both the “Bankrupt” and “Hope and Fear” projects were both used as advertising campaigns. Right?
PT: No. What has happened with my art is that often agencies will say, “Well, that would be a good ad campaign.” So for “Bankrupt,” people had me shoot stuff that was like it. Or with the “Hope and Fear” stuff, it’s not that they used those particular images for advertising, but they were inspired by that stuff to do ads that were similar to the work.
JB: I think it’s interesting how the two do dance back and forth.
JB: I’m interested in the evolution of your work, because I saw the switch get flipped. When I looked at the “Hope and Fear” work, and to and extent the “America’s Gift Shop” work, the symbology was just very direct and very simple. And to me, I think ambiguity is a really important part of great work.
PT: I’ve always said that I always want everything to be like an unfinished sentence, and yet when I look at a lot of my work, it’s just all very straight forward. Like this new project, do you know who Kim Jong-Il is?
JB: Did you say who I think you said?
JB: Our dear leader? Don’t we all know who he is?
PT: Well, I’m doing a project called “Kim Jong-Phil.” It’s also straightforward. (PT now sends me a photo from the project via Skype.)
That was a revelation for me, was this parallel between artistic self-delusion and narcissism, and how a dictator is fueled by the same kinds of desires and urges. So what I did was I found paintings and murals from North Korea, photographs of them, and I had them copied in China into 30×40 oil paintings, and they replaced the dear leader with me. So this is a project about me, again, because since “Days with my Father,” everything has been inward facing. Did you see that? (the photo he sent.)
JB: Yeah, I got it.
PT: So there’s a whole series of these oil paintings, and also bronze sculptures of other assorted dictators. What do you think of that thing?
JB: It’s pretty funny. So it’s going to be shown as a painting, right?
PT: Yeah, they’re all paintings.
JB: It’s actually a nice little opportunity for a segue. I think it’s clear that for the folks in this industry who are going to rebuild things, that clicking a shutter, only by itself, is not enough for most people. That there has to be some sense of being capable or literate in multiple media, or combining knowledge bases into the photography. Video is the obvious connection for a lot of people, but I think that a lot of people are going to have to figure out where their talents lie beyond just clicking the shutte,r so that it can become a gestalt thing with other abilities. You are already working, as an artist, with sculpture and installation and painting. As an artist, how would you suggest people surmount the fear of not knowing what to do? Do you have any ideas on that?
PT: It all comes back to the same thing, man, which is listening to yourself. The reason why I make things like sculpture or painting or have other people make them for “America the Gift Shop” is that I’ve always said that the idea determines the execution. And I really believe that. So those ideas were better as oil paintings or sculpture. Actually, I’ve got to send you one of the sculptures, because they’re mental. Hold on…(PT sends me another photo.)
JB: There it is. Time travel now exists for information. You just clicked a button, and here it is. And I’m 2000 miles away. That’s instantaneous. (Laughs.) It is interesting. I think that by working so much, it brings out different sides of yourself. There’s obviously a humor and a directness in some things that are obviously a part of you, and then there’s the subtlety and the emotionality and the ideas. I’m a big fan of Caravaggio, and I spent a lot of time in Rome at one point and got to live with the work directly…you use the word restraint before, and I used that word in my notes before, because as over the top as “A New Kind of Beauty,” is, there is a kind of restraint. You’re using chiaroscuro properly, and that’s what makes the photos as great as they are. They should be better than what you did ten years ago. We won’t always get it right, but if we aren’t growing then what the fuck are we doing?
PT: That’s exactly right. But you talk about this fear thing, and what should people do, and I think, you can’t say “Don’t be afraid,” because that doesn’t work. No one’s not afraid.
JB: I think we all have fear.
PT: You have to just say “Fuck it.” That’s the best advice I can give to people is to just say “Fuck it.” Just do the thing you want to do. If you want to take pictures of your balls, then take pictures of your balls. I’m serious. I know that’s not the kind of advice that Rob can probably publish, or you can write, but I really mean it. Because the world is composed of millions of people always telling you things you can’t do or shouldn’t do. There’s always a reason “why not” for everything. So that’s why I find this Kim Jong-Phil thing so resonant with me as a person, is because I spent my entire life being a pathological contrarian. It’s a reflex, it’s in who I am. I have to do the thing that I want to do. I just have to do it. And the more people tell me I shouldn’t do it, the more I want to do it. The more wrong it seems like it might be, the more I’m interested in it. So that’s the thing. People don’t do stuff because fear is immobility. So you just have to be moving at all times. Which is why I’m terrified right now because I have no projects in front of me. “Kim Jong Phil” is done, “A New Kind of Beauty” is done, “The Reluctant Father” is kind of done, so I have nothing in front of me so that terrifies me because I feel like I’m going to start slowing down and I’m going to sink to the seabed.
JB: Well we both know we never make our best work in our comfort zone, so it sounds to me like you just figured out what you need to do, which is to dive into that. If your biggest fear is not working on something, then there you go.
PT: I know, you’ve got to be reckless, because that’s the only way that all that interesting shit happens. I see stuff online all the time, and think, “Why didn’t I think of that.” I think the best ideas are the ones that are right in front of you. The most obvious things are the most interesting, most of the time. I have a secret formula, which won’t be a secret any longer when I tell you, which is that stupidity and genius are neighbors. So you can do an idea that is so fucking stupid that it’s genius.