After photographer Phil Toledano experienced both the sudden death of his mother and the slower, drawn out demise of his father, he became obsessed with his own potential futures. In The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano, a short documentary by Joshua Seftel, Toledano spends three years using prosthetic effects and photography to distort his image into these possible selves, all of them tragic.
“I’ve got to do the things that frighten me the most for this project to work,” he says in the documentary, which is having its world premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Shorts: NY — Daily Grind program. In June, the photographs from Toledano’s self-distorting series will be published in a book titled Maybe from Dewi Lewis Publishing. The New York City-based photographer has often played with reality in his work — his 2004 series Hope&Fear has internal desires expressed through elaborate costuming — and he hasn’t shied away from treating deeply personal subjects in his images, such as the portraits of his father during his decline in Days With My Father. However, in The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano, the camera is turned directly on him as a subject as much as an artist who’s haunted by the fears that loom in many of our minds: how will I age and how will I cope with my changed self?
Some of Toledano’s “future Phils” are based on DNA tests and family histories of obesity and heart disease. In once image, drooping prosthetics freeze his face as a stroke victim, while in another shoot a fat suit weighs down his currently fit body. Other images are based on visits with psychics and fortune tellers; suicide, arrest, and homelessness figure in his more extreme experiments. Radically altering your appearance for a few hours isn’t the same as growing old or decrepit, but these repeated transformations have a powerful emotional effect on the photographer, some of it informed by the disease and physical deterioration he witnessed in his father. In one scene, at the encouragement of his wife Carla — who provides an essential and rightly concerned voice of reason throughout the film — Toledano attempts a happy family portrait on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but to no avail. He can only approach the uncertain years ahead through the darkest scenarios.
Toledano says his project is about “the unpredictability of life,” and after three years of contorting into bleak bodies there does seem to be something of a cathartic release. We all have those moments when we realize that a minor knee ache might turn into a debilitating limp over decades, or that a family history of cancer might be lurking in our cells. The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano chronicles one man’s unique way of grappling with these demons, making himself over to resemble as closely as possible those grim twists of fate that might be waiting.
The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano screens at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of Shorts: NY — Daily Grind on April 23 at 2:45pm and April 25 at 7:30pm at Regal Battery Park Stadium 11 (Asphalt Green, Battery Park City, Manhattan).