Phillip Toledano

An image from Toledano’s Hope and Fear seriesA former art director who relaunched his photography career four and half years ago, Toledano’s resume already reads like a list of dream jobs. His editorial work has found its way into sundry of graphically inspired rags (New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and Vanity Fair, to name a few) and his advertising portfolio, capped by the trophy of an Absolut vodka bottle, is more than impressive. But it’s not work and no play; a cursory glance at his website shows an intimidating catalogue of personal work. Indeed, he has exhibited his work at several galleries and published one book so far with more in the making.

Though he has command over a range of styles, Toledano seems to excel, or at least be most excited by clean, graphic, imagery that shows the banality of modern existence turned on its head; office life as surrealist hell. When he does commercial work, he likes to pitch wacky ideas; and sometimes, to his delight, they get approved. That’s how our featured images got started. Part of a series titled “Hope and Fear,” they began when a magazine asked him to shoot some images for a piece on multiculturalism in the baby boomer era. This seemed like a good time to suggest a concept Toledano had left cooking on the back burner, a man wearing a full-bodied suit of ethnically diverse babies. He sketched it out, his prop designer created it, and when faced withAn image from Toledano’s Hope and Fear series the completed image “the floodgates,” he says, “opened.” What has followed are photographs of people standing before blank backgrounds clothed in everything from doll heads to fingers to ears. The point, it seems, is to excavate the neurosis that saturate modern life. In one of his photographs a man’s body is built from assault rifles, his head haloed with F-14 bombers. In another, a woman wears a dress of breasts. Are these their neurosis or ours? The images are made extra-creepy by his choice of talent. Uniformly attractive in an average, everyday, way, they could be extras on a television sitcom. But with their bizarre physical apparatuses make this normalcy look anything but.

Though the props were a challenge, our featured images were easy to light. The lighting varied between the shots but generally an Octabank was used directly overhead the talent and a standard head with a medium grid illuminated the background and in some cases another grid added rim light to the talent.. He shot with a Contax 645 with a 55mm lens using Kodak Portra 160NC film. The exposure was f/11 at 125th of a second.

An image from Toledano’s Hope and Fear seriesParadise corrupted is a consisted theme of Toledano’s; a series from his personal portfolio documents the rooms of bankrupt businesses, where glaring neon lights and stark white walls frame bleak scenes of abandoned office space. In one photograph, rows of unused phones line a desk; in another, a discarded plastic water cup sits crumpled on a conference room table. The scenes are striking not only for their graphic clarity, but because they’re so thoughtful: poignant, voyeuristic glimpses at the grim underbelly of our socio-economic malaise. But this is Toledano’s forte. He has fashioned himself as an anthropologist of sorts, planning a book on manifestations of Entertainment in US Culture and another of portraits of phone sex workers. Toledano has said “The soul of the country is reflected in the way it entertains itself.”

Toledano was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:

F STOP: Tell me how you got your start as a photographer.

Toledano: I had been working in advertising as a creative director for about ten years and I just knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere, the career was a really fascinating thing to do but I just felt it had sort of a very finite timeline. I’d met these photographer reps come around when I was in advertising and I really liked their work so I said “listen, I’m going to quit and be a photographer, would you have a look at my stuff when I’m ready?” They said “sure, why not.” And they couldn’t really say no to me because I was a creative director. So I quit slash got fired, which is really kind of got fired. And then I spent three months shooting all these projects that I had in my mind.

F STOP: Do you feel that you had the upper hand in a way because you knew what other creative directors were looking for?

Toledano: I guess I never really thought about that. I’ve never wanted to target my photography. Almost all the stuff on my web site is personal work. I just do the things that interest me because I feel that it’s always a terrible mistake to try to think that way and target your photography. The only upper hand I felt I had was that I knew how advertising worked. So I know that if when my book gets called in for an ad job and I don’t hear anything for three weeks, it’s not because they don’t necessarily like my book, it’s because my book is sitting on the floor in some art director’s office with 23 other books, and he’s playing video games. He gets to it when he gets to it. Because that’s how I was. But I’ve never had a specific target audience in mind. I guess in some ways I’m veering more towards art than I ever have been in my long four and a half year career. But yeah, it does help to know the system and the way it works.

F STOP: Promotion and marketing is a big part of being an editorial or advertising photographer. Did your advertising experience help you in that department?

Toledano: I guess it helped in that I knew art directors around town. When I first started out I really really pounded the pavement. I just called everyone I knew and asked them for people they knew, and I just went to see people all the time

F STOP: You say that you take “slightly odd pictures.” What appeals to you about odd pictures? Have you always had that sensibility?

Toledano: I guess I’ve always had that sensibility in terms of humor. I’ve always liked the odd, so I guess it was natural that it would end up in the photograph. I’m always struggling against the norm. Like all my life, I never wanted to be normal. So I don’t want my photographs to be normal. I’m always trying to be different. So I’m always trying to think of a different angle. I guess that translates into the photograph. I just find there’s too much beauty, there’s too much normal, there’s too much sameness out there.

F STOP: How do you approach lighting a subject?

Toledano: Generally I use the same kind of lighting. I use three or four lights maximum. For most of those it’s an overhead Octabank, a couple of side grids. I think for the gun shoot, I think I had a grid in the front to pop some light into the enormous mass of machine guns.

F STOP: Tell me a about “The United States of Entertainment.”.

Toledano: I’m working on a book called “The United States of Entertainment.” It’s sort of about how the image of the country is reflected in the way it entertains itself. So I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Now I’ve started thinking about ways I could do the reverse, another aspect of that. Hope and fear is sort of another aspect of entertainment. It’s a physical manifestation of the things the country is thinking about and lusting after, and worried about and all that stuff.

F STOP: Please tell me more about the idea for this and your theme, and what you’re trying to achieve conceptually.

Toledano: Well, my personal work is very political or anthropological in nature. I’m just so interested in that stuff. I was thinking about things, sort of the things that people are afraid of or things that people are interested in or things that people are lustful for. And then I sort of turn those things into suits. It’s interesting because I was thinking about going back to England, but I’m not going to have any artistic inspiration at all because I’m an outsider here. I see things in a different way than I would if I had grown up here.

F STOP: You have another book coming out next fall, describe that for us.

Toledano: Well, I’m doing a book of portraits of phone sex operators called PHONESEX that will be published by Twin Palms . The photographs are good. But the thing that really makes it interesting is I asked them to write a few paragraphs about their experiences and I edit it and I put it next to the photograph. That makes it much better than just straight images. It’s really interesting. And then I’m working on this book called “United States of Entertainment” which basically my hypothesis is that the soul of the country is reflected in the way it entertains itself. I’ve been going to all these things like civil war re-enactments, machine gun festivals, sort of strange presidential theme parks, religious theme parks, and all that kind of stuff. That’s been really interesting. One is an indoor portrait and the other is a really sort of giant enormous landscape-y scaled stuff. There’s a lot of traveling to small towns in the middle of nowhere for these events and such, and I pretty much do it myself. I just find out where they are and I call other people and just go myself, for the United States of Entertainment. The phone sex thing, basically I pay the phone sex workers. I give them one hundred dollars to have their picture taken. Then I offer them fifty bucks if they can introduce me to another phone sex worker. In effect, almost all of the people I’ve found have been through other phone sex workers. For the first one I asked one of my assistants if she could just try and find someone and she found the very first one. They’ve all been really interesting writers too, and have really different socio-economic backgrounds. It’s been great. They’ve all been really cool to me.

F STOP: You work in editorial and advertising and you’re also working on fine art projects now. What are the differences in working with editorial and ad clients versus with galleries?

Toledano: It’s interesting. There’s a sliding scale of freedom. Galleries there’s one hundred percent freedom. Editorial I’d say is probably about seventy percent; advertising is zero. Actually I think it’s about ten percent. So, I’ve been lucky for the most part with editorials in a sense, at least in the context of the conceptual stuff. People will just call me up and say, “what can you think of?” I have to say recently a few weeks I worked with some magazines and they haven’t gone that way. They’ll ask me to think of something and I’ll do it, but then they’ll start changing it after I’ve done it, and I get all pissed off. If you’re going to ask me to do the thing I do, then let me do that thing, or ask someone else. Gallery work is amazing because either the work is great or it isn’t great. And it’s just a question of picking out the pictures that they want to show. Advertising is also great but it’s different. I’ll have input in terms of whatever I think about doing it this way, or shooting it that way, or this kind of lighting or that kind of lighting. But the idea’s not mine, so I’m not going to try to make it mine.

F STOP: Do you do much work in post? Or is it pretty much all done in camera?

Toledano: Well, I try to do everything in camera but obviously it depends on the idea that I’m shooting. Sometimes I have ideas that require a lot of post I guess. I generally tend to try to do everything in camera. I just feel it would be kind of cheesy to do it all in post. But you know, I shot a portrait of a red man the other day for a magazine. He’s got great this obsession with women’s legs, so I had decided that he will be in a forest of women’s legs and he’s real small. So obviously that’s a two shot photograph. But my personal work also tends to be simple. My fear of postproduction just may be a function of my ignorance as opposed to anything else. I’ll read about a photograph that took twenty or thirty composite images to make one photograph. I’ve never done anything like that though. Maybe I should try that!

F STOP: You said you were thinking about experimenting with other lighting styles, have you started doing that?

Toledano: It’s sort of an idea now. I’ve tried a bunch of different stuff, like using HMI lights, just to see what happens.

F STOP: When you’re doing a body of personal work for example, is everything planned out? Do you do a lot of sketches? Or is it more free and open?

Toledano: Well I guess with the PHONESEX, there’s no sketching. I’ll think about maybe what they’ve written and that will affect the photograph. I mean when sketching happens it’s really for the conceptual stuff, the studio stuff, especially if it’s going to be like a fashion story. I’ll really sketch out a little storyboard to myself. Because I like having a progression or narrative there. Sketching really helps because it helps you come up with other ideas. You know, there will often be ideas in your mind that you’re not thinking about. You start sketching and suddenly you see a new idea that you haven’t consciously thought about. In that sense It’s kind of like writing. Surprising, but very useful.

F STOP: Was that also the case with Hope and Fear?

Toledano: Actually yeah, a little bit. I sort of sketched it in sometimes because I’m trying to figure out what it’s going to be, how it’s going to look. But often I’ll just have the idea in my head very clearly. Then of course I have to try and draw it, which is a miserable effort.

Interview by Zack Seckler
Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Nisha Chittal

This piece was originally published 11/1/07 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.

Zack Seckler

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