Portrait of an artist as a dead man

New York photographer Phillip Toledano has staged a series of scenarios of ways in which his life might end, for his latest exhibition, which runs at the Crawford Art Gallery until June. ELLIE O’BYRNE catches up with him during a visit Leeside
Portrait of an artist as a dead man

WHAT FATE LIES AHEAD: One of the images in Philip Toledano’s ‘Maybe: Life & Love’ which runs at the Crawford Art Gallery until June 24

HAVE you ever sat in a room with a man of 50, looking at a series of pictures of how his life might end?

Phillip Toledano is displaying remarkable composure, given that he’s sitting directly opposite a photograph of an older Phillip Toledano, dead in a bath full of blood.

The photographer, whose commercial work has been seen everywhere from Vanity Fair to the New York Times Magazine, is in The Crawford Art Gallery for a flying visit that has left him jet-lagged but still happy to talk.

The Crawford is hosting an exhibition of his work entitled Maybe: Love and Loss. It’s a hybrid show, comprised of two separate bodies of work: first, Days With My Father, which poignantly documents his relationship with his father, who suffered from dementia in his last days, and also Maybe, a series of self-portraits where Toledano worked with prosthetics artists, documentarians and even fortune tellers to imagine and enact ways in which his own life might end.

Morbidly obese, homeless, alcoholic, buying the services of a prostitute: Maybe’s images aren’t pleasant ends. Does Toledano have one that he’s particularly scared of?

He laughs; it’s a surprisingly innocuous choice. “It’s the one of me in an office,” he says. “If I’m in an office cubicle, it means that I’ve failed as an artist.”

Fear of death is the motivation for Maybe, he explains: “If you want to look at it chronologically, it all started with the death of my mum, followed by the death of my dad. I became really fearful of what other things lay ahead. I just wanted to make the intangible tangible, because it was obsessing me so much, this fear.”

A three-year dive into the abyss of his own demise hardly sounds like fun; in an accompanying short documentary also on display in the gallery, Toledano’s wife, Carla, expresses her fears over his obsessive quest to document his potential demise. In fact, he says, the whole process was pretty arduous.

“I was so happy and relieved when I felt that it was done,” he says. “Every aspect of this particular project was utter misery. I hated every part of it; there was nothing about it I liked. I mean, look at it, why would you?

“You’re sitting there for four or five hours getting the make-up put on, and it’s boring and tedious, and then you’re looking at yourself and going, ‘God, I could end up looking like this’. It was expensive and difficult and it took a lot of organisational skills, which I don’t really have.”

Having had success in commercial photography with his high-concept magazine work, Toledano, who was born in London but lives in New York with his wife and daughter, began the process of turning the lens on himself for Days With My Father, his poignant and highly personal 2010 photography book documenting his father’s last days.

LIFE IS ENDING: Another image of Philip Toledano, which is showcasing at the city centre gallery.
LIFE IS ENDING: Another image of Philip Toledano, which is showcasing at the city centre gallery.

Since then, he has largely explored personal themes, turning away from commercial work and towards art photography.

“I have a very weird way of thinking about things; I imagine myself in the future looking back,” he says.

“About seven or eight years ago, I imagined myself at my age now — I’m 50 this year — and I just thought about what would be important: would I be happy to say I’m a successful commercial photographer or would I be happy to look back and say ‘I made art that matters to me’? Clearly, the art matters to me more than anything else.”

Toledano’s father was an artist too, and an actor. In Days With My Father, he’s old and frail, a vulnerable figure. Toledano has frequently answered questions about the complex ethics of presenting his father’s frailty to viewers and readers, but one question remains: is this how his father would have wanted to be remembered?

“I think it’s about our love, and I think my father understood the depth of the love we had between us, and it doesn’t show him in a negative light and it didn’t leave him without dignity, I don’t think,” he says. “But it’s a tricky question because he also came from a time when this wasn’t what art was.”

He smiles.

“He was a willing participant in the photographs, but every day he’d forget what I was doing and ask me, and I’d say, ‘I’m photographing our lives together,’ and he’d say, ‘Let me see.’ Then I’d show him the pictures and he’d say, ‘These are terrible’, so every day he’d tell me they were terrible, like it was new to him.”

“He was beautiful and gentle except when he was angry, and then he was incandescent, like a flash fire, and then it would be over,” he says.

“Family was everything to him, and mum was everything to him.”

The last photo in the series was taken shortly after his father’s death: it’s his empty chair.

Battling the fear of mortality is a fairly universal concern, and one which audiences can easily understand and engage with.

“My only great skill is that I talk about the obvious,” he says. “As a photographer, particularly, that’s something it’s been important to learn: you think you have to go off and find strange and unusual things, but the things that matter are the things that are right in front of us.”

It’s not Toledano’s first visit to Cork: he’s been to the Crawford when they exhibited his work in the past. With the gallery announcing a €22 million renovation to cement itself as Cork’s national cultural institution, Toledano says he appreciates the second-city sense of intimacy, where the dizzying choice of galleries and museums in New York is replaced with a smaller but individually significant selection of arts venues.

“America’s gone off the deep end anyway, now,” he says. “It’s been teetering for a while but now it’s really unhinged.

“I’ve been trying to get Carla to move away from New York, and her father has some land in Ireland.

“We were joking about it, maybe we should just move here and build a house…”

Maybe: Life & Love, accompanied by short film The Many Sad Fates Of Mr Toledano, is at the Crawford Art Gallery, Emmet Place, until June 24. Events by local artists in response throughout May: see www.crawfordartgallery.ie for more.

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