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Big Ideas

Phillip Toledano: Make Stuff That Matters

"Am I just bullshitting?" Photographer Phil Toledano on the pitfalls of artistic delusion, where great ideas come from, and how to make work with meaning.

The subject matter of Phil Toledano‘s photography runs the gamut, from exploring how plastic surgery empowers us to create our own brand of beauty to peeking behind the curtain of the phone sex industry to investigating the spectacle of the American Dream. A recent, more personal series, quietly documents his farewell to his father, a man unwilling to accept his wife’s death in the last years of his life.

Behind all of these investigations lies an obsession with the idea of delusion:
The stories we tell ourselves to get by, the nationalistic ideals we revere, the desires we will suspend disbelief to fulfill. In his latest project, Toledano turns his questioning lens on himself. With the Kim Jong Phil series, he examines the dictatorial delusions of the artist, recreating existing artworks of “great leaders” and casting himself as the lead.

This is all to say nothing of Toledano’s extremely successful commercial career, in which he’s translated his offbeat aesthetic for publications including The New Yorker, NYT Magazine, Fast Company, Interview, Maxim, and many more.

I talked with Toledano by phone about the unexpected success of his Days With My Father series and how hearing from your audience can have a huge impact.

How does an idea come to you, and how do you know what to run with?

I wish I knew where the ideas came from. I wish I could go to a store and I could just browse the shelves for ideas. It would certainly be much less terrifying, because not knowing where they come from is frightening. I always think maybe I’ll never have anymore ideas ever again.I just think about ideas for awhile. I guess the way in which I can tell if they’re good or not often is in the talking about the idea itself. So I’ll talk to friends and say ‘Oh, yeah, I’m thinking about this thing.’ And if it feels right, inside to me, I’ll start doing it.

How do you push yourself in your work?

I often look at stuff on the web. I find inspiration in painting and sculpture. I wish I could think of things that were that surprising. I feel that I’m not nearly good enough. So I just want to be better. That’s the biggest challenge. I want to surprise myself more and be able to look at something I’ve done and think ‘F*ck, where does that idea come from?’

Photo: Phillip Toledano.
From “Days With My Father.”

How did you come to document the period of your life during Days With My Father?

I took care of my dad for three years before he died, but I took photographs for probably a year and a half. And I probably took about 150 photographs in all. And that’s very few photographs, just because I didn’t want the process of taking photographs to overwhelm taking care of my father. I started writing things down, specific experiences or things he said, really just because I have a miserable memory.

Did you expect the project to reach so many people?

In some ways it was such an extraordinary experience and such an extraordinary surprise because I didn’t think anyone would have any interest in that work at all. I mean I did it for myself and I felt that it was much too personal. I didn’t think anyone would be able to connect with it.

But then when I put it up online, this sort of magical thing happened, and I just started getting thousands of emails. I think like 1.8 million people have been to the site, and then there’s a book-to-movie deal, so all this sort of things have happened. But I think more than that, the most amazing thing about that work is it redirected me in a sense.

When I put it up online, this sort of magical thing happened.

How so?

First of all, it was a real honor. You don’t get a chance often in life to help people. And so for whatever reason, this work seems to help people out. I mean I got an email from this woman yesterday: ‘I’ve been so moved by your book I felt the need to write to tell you how beautiful it was. I never had a relationship with my father and I feel the need to contact him. This is probably just a temporary lapse of sanity, but I felt compelled to let you know that you may just have changed my life.’And that’s not unusual. I get emails everyday like this. People say the most extraordinary things. It’s really mind-blowing to me, and really an incredible honor. And I feel that if I died tomorrow, at least I’ve done something worthwhile in the world. I mean maybe it’s just for a tiny amount of people, but at least I’ve done something. Which is a lot more than I could have said a few years ago.

Photo: Phillip Toledano.
From “Days With My Father.”

How did it feel to reach the masses with this project?

Well it’s interesting because I think about the art world a lot.  And I think about, you know, when you go to a gallery and read an artist’s statement. It’s terribly incomprehensible, right? It’s just kind of a simple club sandwich, layered cake extravaganza of references and connotations and words and people’s names, none of which means anything to me. And I feel like it’s almost directed not toward anyone, but the very tiny biosphere of curators and gallerists and the art world, right? So we’re all in this world talking to ourselves and it’s naïve. But part of me feels as though it would be nice if art makes things better for people, for the world in some way, if it shows them something that is possible.

So the thing with Days of My Father I realized, and I only realized this in retrospective, is it’s a book about love. And it’s a book about, I guess if you were to look at it objectively, it’s a book about the idea that saying goodbye can be a really extraordinary beautiful thing. We realize that we have to say goodbye to our parents at some point, but it can be a really beautiful experience if you look at it that way. And that, if you show it to other people, it’s giving people something useful in a way. And I guess I would hope that my work would be useful to people in some way, as well as to myself.

Image: Phillip Toledano.
From “Kim Jong Phil.”

Is that going to be the benchmark going forward?

I remember saying this as a kid. My father’s an artist and I remember talking to him about wanting to be an artist and saying to him if I can do art that changes people over time, shows them something for a second or a minute, changes their mind about something, that would be really worthwhile.So, that’s always been my intention. But ultimately I can only make the art that I can make. I just do the ideas that speak to me and I talk about the stuff that’s interesting to me. Hopefully that will be of value to other people.

That’s where Kim Jong Phil comes in. I could just be f*cking talking to myself. I mean that’s the thing that you don’t know. Am I just bullshitting? Am I just drinking my own urine and telling myself it’s the finest red wine available? I have no idea. You know what I mean? You don’t know. You just hope that you make stuff that matters, firstly to yourself and secondly to other people.

Comments (10)
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    Good article !Very sinserly thanks! Nicely done!

  • Kenneth Rimm

    Great and very touching photography by Mr Toladano

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    Great post, I enjoyed ready reading it, Keep posting good stuff like this.

  • Naxic Dave

    nice article, i like the personal touch that you put into the project and i look forward to reading your book at some point.

  • Dianecatherinewan

    I enjoyed reading that. Especially the last paragraph! Ha… It’s inspiring and reassuring to know that you can become great and make a meaningful difference in your own and other people’s lives whilst still having thoses sorts of self-doubts but just never allowing them to stop you from doing what you love, and were probably born, to do.

  • research paper writers

    interesting post! thanks!

  • Myka728

    I love the Days with My Father

  • Ciara

    Very good.

  • Vicky

    what amazing moments to have with your father.  thank you so much for sharing them with the world. 

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