Photographer Phil Toledano’s personal conceptual art projects tend to focus on the most intimate parts of his life: the death of his father, for instance, or the death of his sister when he was a boy. Recently, he decided to explore his own aging and eventual death, and enlisted the best make-up and set design people to help shoot himself in various possible fates. This revealing, at times stirring documentary shows this controversial, self-indulgent experiment from the inside out.
How did this come to be?
A little over three years ago, I ran into Phil just after his father had died. My father had also just died. Phil talked about this new project he was thinking about doing with psychics and prosthetics. I’m sure it resonated with me in part because of the passing of my dad and the effect that had on me because I was grappling with a lot of the same things Phil was dealing with.
He explained that he had plans to have a DNA test and that he was going to start speaking with psychics and fortune tellers to gather many possible futures. Then he planned to hire a prosthetic makeup artist who would help him create these future “Phils” so that Phil could take portraits of himself. I asked Phil if I could film the project, and he agreed.
Is he as self-involved and worrisome as he’s portrayed?
Phil and I went to Tufts together 25 years ago. In fact we even took a film class together there. Even then he was a great visual artist. Phil is a very upbeat, comical person, and underneath, he’d be the first to admit he’s self-absorbed and a worrier. I hope watching this film explains a bit about why Phil is the way he is and how that is motivating him to create his photos.
What happened with all of these images?
Phil compiled the photographs into a book, Maybe, which was released by Dewi Lewis Publishing a few months ago. The photos from Maybe also debuted at Phil Toledano’s retrospective at the Deichtorhallen Museum in Hamburg, Germany. The photos will continue to be shown at various venues in the coming months.
Did he find lasting healing through the project? It does seem to be almost a preventative psychiatry of sorts.
My sister is an art therapist, which I’m sure is one of the reasons why I was drawn to making this film. I was so curious to see what impact this work would have on Phil. His art project just seemed to be endless — three years in total! But in many ways I think that was the time required for Phil to get to the place where he felt he was done and I think a lot of that had to do with him finally arriving at a peaceful place.
Were you with him for all three years of the project?
I was there with Phil for every photo shoot he did over the three years. He would often have to be in makeup for 3 to 4 hours per scenario, which provided great opportunity for interviews and introspection. I even followed him on his family vacation to Fire Island to interview his wife Carla because she was too busy in her day to day life to have time to be filmed. When the project started, I think that neither Phil nor I imagined the process would stretch on for three long years. In the end, I was surprised and fascinated by the resulting photos and, maybe even more so by the impact the project has had Phil’s family and the way they view the future.