Philip Toledano is an advertising and editorial photographer and fine artist perhaps best known for his conceptual portrait work and his fine art work including the book “Days With My Father” in which he chronicles the last three years of his father’s life and projects “Kim John Phil,” “A New Kind of Beauty,” “Phonesex” and “America the Gift Shop.”
I revisited Days With My Father recently and was as moved by its humanity as I was the first time I saw it and thought it would be a good time to catch up with Philip as it goes into its second printing after selling it’s first printing of 16,000 copies in six months.
I’m always interested in talking with artists who cross effortlessly from fine art to commercial photography. They are invariably optimistic, thoughtful, fun and bring a light-heartedness yet dead seriousness to their commercial work. Philip was no exception. He injects humor, deep compassion and humanity to a wide-range of subject matter all balanced with his trademark conceptual wit.
Philip shoots fashion, conceptual, portraits and advertising for a client list that includes Absolut, Nokia, MetLife, Diesel, Nextel, Discovery Channel, Johnnie Walker, Le Tigre and editorial clients Vanity Fair, The New York Times magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Wallpaper, and The London Times among others.
Philip and I spoke about how he got his start, how Days With My Father changed the course of his work, and of course where the “Mr.” originated. Big thank you to Philip for talking with me and for sharing so much with POP. I’ve included a nice selection of images, but please visit Philip’s site for all images in each of his fine art projects and his full portfolio.
POP: What was your path to becoming a photographer?
Well, I’d always wanted to be a photographer, since I was a kid. I ended up working in advertising for ten years, as an art director who wrote copy on the side. Even though I worked at good places, I felt as though I’d never be amazing at advertising. It wasn’t that my ideas were bad, but that I was shit at negotiating the Byzantine labyrinth of advertising politics.
I studied English literature in college so advertising was like art school for me. I learned a lot and had fantastic training in ideas. You learn to whittle down ideas really well so the mechanism works seamlessly. It also exposed me to photography, design, and typography, film, and extremely posh lunches.
When I left advertising in 2002, I thought I’d shoot what interested me and if I got work, then I’d be a photographer. I started out shooting the gamers series, offices, and a few other things, and then this work got me editorial work, and then advertising.
I’ve been taking photos since I was 11. My father was a painter and I was a terrible painter, so photography seemed like a natural choice. I started with fine art because I had ideas that were interesting to me. If I want to sound like an arse, I’d say I’m a conceptual artist. The idea always comes first. The idea tells me the thing it wants to be-so it doesn’t have to be photography. It might end up as video, sculpture, or painting. Many of my projects involve words-there’s a lot of writing in my family.
For some projects, I take the Andy Warhol/Jeff Koons approach. I come up with the idea, and then other people make the thing itself. I did an installation project called America the Gift Shop – everything was made in China or the states. Kim Jong Phil was all made in China. It’s incredibly liberating not to be confined to one medium and let the idea take the form it wants.
POP: How did you build your editorial career?
I called people up and went to see them. The NY Times was the first to call which sent me into a panicked frenzy.
My editorial career sort of started with New York Magazine. I was doing an ad job at the time and Kerry had just lost to Bush. NY mag wanted to do a story about how the younger generation felt about it. An intern on my job was wearing a KERRY/EDWARDS t-shirt, so, on my lunch break, I took a portrait of him holding the NEW YORK POST-BUSH WINS AGAIN was on the cover. I ended up shooting almost weekly for NY MAG after that-did 10 – 12 covers, etc etc. And that’s how I ended up being a conceptual photographer for magazines. The thing about conceptual photography is that it’s a binary proposition. It’s either really good or really shit. It’s has to be a dictatorial process, because it’s VERY easy for it to be cheesy.
POP: There’s a lot of humor in your work.
I’m very funny.
POP: Art always starts with a question or curiosity. In Kim Jong Phil, you talk about having to believe in yourself and your ideas, to propel yourself forward with this belief. How do you decide which ideas to pursue for your projects? What is the weeding out process in terms of which ideas to pursue?
I’m always thinking about a lot of things. After a while, ideas develop mass and gravity and the gravitational pull of one of those ideas is usually stronger than the rest, and pulls me towards it. Often, as I’m working on something, I realize I’ve been thinking about it for years. I have a wine cellar stuffed with thoughts and ideas. Every now and then, the idea sommelier will nip down to the cellar, and bring up a splendid vintage for me to taste. Here’s another metaphor for you. I have a sort of primordial soup in my head. Then, every now and then, an idea develops legs, and hauls itself up onto the shore, like a coelacanth.
I’m working on a piece now about my own mortality. I realize I’ve been thinking about it for five or six years.
POP: Where did the Mr. originate?
To be honest, it was just a joke and I thought it was funny. It turns out that I inadvertently branded myself.
POP: How do you balance your commercial and fine art careers?
Commercial and editorial work is all about ideas. Doing this work is like going to the gym. It keeps my mind elastic. Plus, It opens windows to vistas I might not have considered.
Here’s an example. When I was taking care of my father at the end of his life, I was always thinking about mortality. A magazine asked me to shoot a cover of a well-known dermatologist who had a lot of plastic surgery. I was immediately fascinated. It occurred to me that plastic surgery was the complete opposite of my experience with my father. Plastic surgery is the denial of death and aging.
That idea wouldn’t have occurred to me had I not had this job.
The way I found my subjects for the plastic surgery work is quite simple. Once I’d found one person, then they would introduce me to the next, etc, etc.. I was always very honest about the subject matter of the book, and what my intentions were. I didn’t want to mislead anyone, at any point.
POP: For Bankrupt, did you consciously approach the project with the idea of making photos that had the formal approach of traditional corporate photos?
I’ve always found offices really beautiful and odd (my favorite combination!) The dismembering of humanity through corporate architecture. Heads chopped off by cubicles, legs and arms glimpsed through doorways. In the bankrupt project, I became interested in the human cost of economic collapse and wanted to show it without people.
POP: How did Days With My Father come about?
When my mum died suddenly in 2006, I found myself taking care of my father. My parents took care of me when I couldn’t take care of myself, so the least I could do was return the favor. In the west, old people are refuse-they’re just thrown out. And I didn’t want to throw my father out.
I took photographs of our life together. It ended up being a love story, because I suppose that’s what our relationship was about.
We all have the choice of how we say goodbye to our parents, and that’s how I chose to say goodbye. I was lucky because my father had savings set aside and allowed us to keep his life much as it was before my mum died.
POP: How did Days With My Father impact your work?
Everything I’ve done since then has been very personal. Beauty was about mortality. Kim Jong Phil was about how I am as an artist. Days With My Father really redirected the course of the river. The project I’m working on now is about my own mortality.
And now, Days With my Father is being reprinted. It was sold out in 6 months, 16,000 copies. Mind-blowing to me and massively extraordinary. It’s been a huge honor and joy to have done something useful. As an artist, you don’t often get to do something that’s really useful to a lot of people.
POP: Art always starts with a question or curiosity. In Kim Jong Phil, you talk about having to believe in yourself and your ideas, to propel yourself forward with this belief.
Kim Jong Phil is a one liner. But it’s a very personal one liner. Art doesn’t always have to be serious, you know…
Those are copies of original propaganda from North Korea. I found photos on Flickr and sent them to China. I’d shoot myself in the same position and send that as well. I found the painters and sculptors via Google.
POP: How did the Phone Sex series evolve?
Much of my work deals with delusion. From beauty, ethics and morals to politics. There’s no limit to how much we can lie to ourselves.
I found the phone sex operators on Craigslist. Once I started meeting them, I was amazed at how smart and intuitive they were. To be a phone sex operator, you’ve got to be so intellectually agile. You’ve got to create a world and fill it with believable characters. One of the things I liked was that every kind of person did it. NYU college students. Housewives. Mothers. Rich, poor. They felt they got something out of it. They understood men, themselves.
POP: Hope and Fear?
All real suits. I designed them and had them made. The casting was interesting. People were into it.
POP: What do you think is the common thread in your commercial work? What jobs are you hired for?
I guess I’m known for ideas.
I like to create things in the studio and do everything in camera if I can. Building sets is fun…for a little while, you can create a whole new world, and populate it.
POP: How much do you try to get in-camera?
If there is composite work it’s two – three shots instead of 50. People tend to think there’s all sorts of Photoshop madness happening in my work, but generally, there isn’t. I think it’s much more fun to show up on set and have something fantastic in front of you to shoot. You get better performances out of the actors if they’re on set interacting with something that is around them.
The snake photo is all in camera. I found a model who seemed quite ok with the idea of 15 snakes on her head. This idea was from More. The article was a woman talking about her phobias. They called me up and said ‘we’d like to shoot a woman with snakes on her head’. And I said ‘yes, please!’
POP: I’ve heard you are a great collaborator.
With editorial, magazines need photographers as much as they need the magazines. I bring stuff/topics to magazines, pitch stories I’m interested in seeing. And sometimes they are interested and other times not.
I had shot a place called “Disaster City” in Texas for Wired (where they train for disasters, oddly enough), but I thought it would be a killer place for a fashion shoot, so I spoke to Esquire and we did a men’s fashion story there—it was such fun!
POP: It looks like you have fun with your subjects and on your shoots.
My shoots are generally good entertainment. I’m not particularly serious on set. But I’m serious about what I do. My shoots are like The Olive Garden. When you’re there, you’re family.
For the editorial stuff, it’s always a good laugh because we’re making cool, interesting things happen on set.
POP: Has your personal work led to commercial jobs?
Bankrupt, Hope and Fear. Bankrupt lead to jobs shooting office space. For awhile I was just the guy people called when they wanted to shoot offices. Hope and Fear led to an ad for an inhaler for a health care project.
POP: Do you go on agency meetings yourself?
Yes, I like it. I’m such a recluse it gets me out of the house. It’s interesting to go back into a situation I was so familiar with.
I bring my published books, my editorial book and commercial book. It’s like a picnic table groaning under the weight of genius. (if I say so myself)
POP: Dream job?
It’s not about the client. It’s about the idea. I have so many interests. I would love to shoot an airline campaign. In some ways, not shooting one kind of thing is detrimental. I think people get a little confused—it’s easier if you shoot fashion, or still life, or mugs, or whatever…
I’m not really a casual photographer. Maybe it’s because I’m too lazy!
POP: What project are you working on now?
I’m working on something about my own mortality. Basically, I’m trying to envision my own future.
POP: Day in the life? Favorite way to spend a Sunday?
Well, If I can start with pancakes, that’s generally a good thing….other than that, I have no set routine….i’m miserably boring, really…