An Interview with Artist and Photographer Phillip Toledano

phillip toledano - the reluctant father

Phillip Toledano b.1968 is a conceptual artist known in equal parts for socio-political projects and deeply personal work. Although most of his work is produced through photography, he states that ‘everything starts with an idea, and the idea determines the execution’ – with work varying from photography to installation, sculpture to painting. His series ‘Kim Jong Phil’ centres on the distinctions that he draws between an artist and a dictator.

To date, Toledano has published five books; Days with My FatherThe Reluctant FatherPhonesexA New Kind of Beauty and Bankrupt. His most recent publication, The Reluctant Father (2013), documents his reluctance, thoughts and feelings over the first year and a half of his daughter’s life, providing an honest, funny and equally moving portrayal of his experience as a new father.

Born in London and based in New York, his commercial work has featured in a wide-range of publications including Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Wallpaper, The London Times, The Independent Magazine, Le Monde and Interview amongst others.

We wanted to know how Phil’s approach to personal and commercial work differs, why he chose a career as an artist and his reflections on some of his most personal bodies of work. Phil took the time to chat with us on Twitter one early US morning – providing thoughtful, interesting answers and a whole host of metaphors for good measure.

Catch up on the conversation below:

Genesisimaging: Hi Phil, are you ready to talk about photography & your practice?

MrToledano: Hi guys – I’m here – nice to be doing this, what’s first?

Genesisimaging: Great! Let’s get stuck in… In three words, how do you hope that your work is perceived?

MrToledano: 3 words? Madness! I’d like to do work that matters, helps, and changes things.

Genesisimaging: Great answer, sorry that was a tricky one to start with.

MrToledano: Especially when you’re still in your pyjamas.

Genesisimaging: You’re known for both your conceptual and very personal work and also for your commercial work – how do you balance the two?

MrToledano: They’re both about ideas, but one is much more personal than the other.

MrToledano: Plus sometimes, commercial work opens windows to vistas I’d not considered.

Genesisimaging: How does your approach differ between personal/commercial and do you find it difficult switching between the two?

MrToledano: Personal is from the heart, and commercial is from the brain.

MrToledano: But occasionally they connect, like trains on the same platform.

Genesisimaging: Nicely put. At what age did you decide to pursue a career in photography and was this a conscious choice?

MrToledano: Well, it was conscious in the sense that I kept getting fired from my advertising jobs.

MrToledano: I was 35, I think? But I knew that I had to give it a go, or accept a life of beige.

MrToledano: In retrospect, I don’t think I had much choice – everything in my life was leading to me doing what I do now.

Genesisimaging: Good answer – interesting that you started off in advertising!

MrToledano: I never went to art school, so that WAS my art school. It was very educational… It taught me to be ruthless with my ideas.

Genesisimaging: It’s interesting – on some levels you can see the influence in your work, in some ways it’s a complete departure.

Genesisimaging: As an artist, how do you deal with the pressures to create work?

MrToledano: I don’t think I see it as pressure. I have things I’d like to say, and i try to say them clearly and originally.

MrToledano: I also feel that I’m lucky to be an artist, so i feel an obligation not to be a loafing bastard!

Genesisimaging: Another good answer! Let’s talk more about your personal work…

MrToledano: Yes… Ever since my parents died a few years ago, my work has mostly turned inwards.

Genesisimaging: ‘The Reluctant Father’ explores your initial experience with fatherhood… How do you hope that your daughter will react to it when she’s older?

MrToledano: She thinks it’s funny now, she’ll probably hate me when she’s 12, then hopefully she’ll think it’s funny again when she’s 25.

MrToledano: I’d like her to understand that before I was a parent I was a person, with all the flaws that go with it.

Genesisimaging: Do you still have the plates that you made of her on display?

MrToledano: Plates, tote bags AND cushions.

MrToledano: Sometimes she has her dinner off them – she finds it hilarious.

Genesisimaging: Brilliant. It’s a very interesting tale of what I suppose that a lot of new fathers face but perhaps are too afraid to say.

MrToledano: I don’t think I’m saying something particularly original – I just happen to be saying it in public.

MrToledano: Which either makes me courageous, or a halfwit.

Genesisimaging: Georgina asks about ‘Days with My Father’, how did documenting your father in the last years of his life affect the way that you handled the difficult situation?

MrToledano: Making the work was important. I was consciously trying to remember, knowing there wasn’t much time.

Genesisimaging: When you began the body of work, did you think that you would make it into a book?

MrToledano: I never know what a project is going to be – I just let it lead me.

MrToledano: Hopefully not down the garden path, which sometimes happens.

MrToledano: It’s a little like white water rafting… You let the river guide you, and don’t resist, or think too much.

Genesisimaging: How did you feel when ‘Days with My Father’ went out into the world and started gaining attention?

MrToledano: I felt privileged that I’d done something useful (and surprised).

MrToledano: It was strange at first, having a conversation with a lot of strangers, but it was also beautiful, and touching.

Genesisimaging: Last few Q’s… Let’s touch briefly on your current work – what are you working on at the moment? (If you can say!)

MrToledano: Well, shocking enough, two projects about myself (I’m SO fascinating) and then a video project…

MrToledano: That was nice and vague, wasn’t it…? I can also say there will be a new book out soon(ish).

Genesisimaging: That was quite! Last Q… How do you decide when a body of work is finished? Is there a point where you think it’s complete?

MrToledano: It’s sort of like driving and coming to an unexpected dead end.

MrToledano: I realise that I’ve said all I want to say – I’m VERY conscious of NOT over-saying things.

Genesisimaging: Some lovely metaphors this afternoon… We’ll let you head off now. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us!

MrToledano: My pleasure. Glad you enjoyed the metaphors – I made them fresh just for you!

Genesisimaging: Ha-ha, thanks Phil! Enjoy the rest of your day. Thanks for talking to us so early in the morning.

Find out more about Phil’s work at mrtoledano.com

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