A friend recently sent me an email that showed portraits of people intently playing video games. This led to quite a few discoveries, one of which was an interesting New York Magazine article, where instead of gamers, the photographer – Phillip Toledano – shows us the faces of men watching porn.
Although the text of the article tempted me to explore elsewhere, I’m happy to report I was more intrigued by the images, so I next visited Toledano’s website. It’s not titled “Phillip Toledano Photography” or the like. It’s simply titled: Mr. Toledano. Why does this remind me of a 1930’s magician in tuxedo and top hat? (Alas, “Lubow Photography” seems quite dull to me now.)
The personal projects that follow – Gamers, Bankrupt, America the Gift Shop, The United States of Entertainment — are slightly mind bending. The most powerful, Days With My Father, is touching, disturbing and exploitive at the same time. [I’m reminded of Avedon.] The text that accompanies these images speaks volumes about age, time, vanity, lost memories, a life lived — and the potent combination of text & image might just have the power to make you drop a tear. (Click here to see the complete project.) I can’t help but wonder, though: did Toledano’s father have the ability to fully consent to this project? If not, how are we to react to these images, and what does our reaction tell us about ourselves?
Also arresting is the text that accompanies Phone Sex, where Toledano wisely allows those in the business of entertaining callers to revealingly speak for themselves.
If you’re intrigued by Toledano, his Commissions section continues with equally imaginative images, but also shows just how skilled a photographer he is – particularly when it comes to lighting. For me, though, Toledano’s photography is all about the power of the idea. More often than not, the images are superb, but it is the idea behind them, and the accompanying text driving the theme, that compels.
Baltimore photographer and educator Sherwin Mark once said something that really stuck with me. He spoke of the emergent power that comes from a group of images. Individual photographs have their own power, but when a group of photographs comes together as an exhibit, the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. Simply stated, each photograph becomes a beacon, shedding additional meaning on the others. With Toledano, it is even more so, because the themes behind his work do not stand softly in the shadows. As Dylan Thomas might say, they rage, rage against the dying of the light — and that’s quite an achievement.