Confronting Fear and the Future With Photography

Phillip Toledano employs the unexpected to expose the humor, heartbreak, and ambivalence of the human condition.

Photographer Phillip Toledano spends a lot of time figuring out what’s required of him as an artist. How, for instance, can he accurately reflect life and all its facets—humor, ambivalence, vulnerability, love?

He’s been taking photos since he was ten, starting with simulated Alpine landscapes created from magazine clippings and figurines. For National Geographic, Toledano lent his eye to the November 2016 story “Mars: Inside the High-Risk, High-Stakes Race to the Red Planet.” His vision created pictures that were nothing short of magical.

After the death of his parents a lot of his work became introspective and personal.

“The work I did with my father—that changed the course of the river for me,” he says, referring to Days With My Father, a chronicle of his aging father’s final years. “By that I mean, it's changed who I am and how I speak and what I do as an artist.”

As part of our "Through the Lens" series, we take a look at Toledano's work and find out what makes him tick.

What was the first picture you made that mattered to you?

When I was ten, I persuaded my parents to buy me a secondhand camera. The very first thing I did was cut out the backgrounds of ski magazines with all these Alpine vistas. I used them as backdrops. In the foreground, I put flour so It looked like snow. I’d make scenes by adding my figurines. Then I’d take pictures of the entire scene.

I remember my mom clearly saying, “This is going to be a waste of time.” So encouraging at a young age.

If you weren't a photographer, what would you be?

I would still be in advertising. I’d be an art director or creative, which is what my last job was before I left when I was 34 to become a photographer.

Who is your greatest influence?

I suppose my father because he was an artist. I would watch him paint. I would watch him draw. We'd talk about his art. We'd go to his shows. I'd go to his studio. We'd go to museums and galleries. I guess it's through him that I became what I am.

What is the perfect photograph?

The perfect photograph has mystery and surprise. Otherwise, it's sort of one dimensional. It's not very filling. It has a low caloric value.

It should feel like a half-finished sentence. There is a magical chemical reaction that happens when you don’t give all the information to the viewer. They have to engage, anticipate, and make jumps.

What fuels your passion for photography?

I like making things. I like exposing things.

I always wanted to be an artist. It wasn't specifically photography. As my career continues, photography is something in a toolbox. It's not the photography bit I like, it's the making bit that I like.

What is your most treasured possession in the field?

Warm socks. I have a whole thing about cold feet. I hate the winter. I always have cold toes.

When I'm shooting I'm kind of in a trance. It doesn't matter how I'm feeling. Unless it's kind of extremely unbearable, I just don't care. The moment I put down the camera I'm moaning about my cold feet.

What is the most important advice you could give to emerging photographers?

You don't have to find something unusual, you just have to say something new.

Ideas are the currency of this era. Everyone can copy style. Everyone can go and shoot homeless people or Cuba.

If you have unique ideas, you will be useful to people.

You can follow Phillip Toledano on Instagram.

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