The theme of the 2015 Hamburg Triennale of Photography was “The Day Will Come.” Across the city, exhibition halls, galleries and old warehouses were re-purposed to examine the question of the future—in photography, and in general.
The genesis of this year’s edition of the Hamburg Triennale of Photography was conceived from two principal sources, a contrasting pair of inspirations, that were united around the theme of the future. On one end of the spectrum, there was the gigantic, awe-inspiring work of Henrik Spohler—large-format photographs that gave us a space to ponder our impact on the environment and the future of our planet on a humanity-wide scale. On the other side, we found the often personal, ever-idiosyncratic work of Phillip Toledano. Between these two poles, the festival’s program reminded us that our future is malleable at every moment; that the present lasts just an instant; that our decisions today can decisively shape our (and everyone’s) tomorrow: “When you make a choice, you change the future.”
In the festival’s flagship exhibition, Maybe, we find that Toledano has imagined what his future could hold. But rather than stopping at just one future, Toledano went ahead and imagined dozens of different possible futures for himself: a homeless man, an Upper East Side socialite, a celebrity, a suicide victim and so on. While the very idea of photographing the future seems impossible—after all, the moment after a camera has clicked, the image it created instantaneously falls into the past—Toledano was undaunted. He called upon sources ranging from psychic mediums to DNA testing in order to imagine the shape of things to come and to face the existential fear of aging, head-on.
Adjoining Maybe, we find work from across Toledano’s decade-long oeuvre—some 160 prints are presented in total. The series on display range from photographs (and stories) of phone sex operators (Phonesex) to dramatically stylized portraits of people who have undergone major plastic surgery (A New Kind of Beauty). These bodies of work speak to Toledano’s preoccupation with self-image and presentation. By photographing phonesex operators in their homes, we witness the gap between fantasy and visible reality. In the portraits of plastic surgery, we question what value external appearance will have in a future where everyone has the ability to push their beauty towards some extreme, imaginary ideal.
Yet for all his technical wizardry and satisfying conceptual unity, Toledano’s work ultimately feels a bit too slick and much too measured. For an artist whose practice is so preoccupied with presentation, at times it appears that Toledano gets stuck playing his own game.
For example, in the shots of downtrodden, homeless future-Toledano, any authentic feelings of sympathy or fear are plastered over by the perfect make-up and impeccable lighting. Toledano, in describing a photograph in which he took on the appearance of a 90-year old man, said, “Feeling how invisible you are when you’re getting old and when you’re really fat…that is the experience of that project that has been extraordinary for me.” An important realization, to be sure, but not one that is evident in the picture itself. These aren’t vulnerable images because they look much too good.
But the exhibition does yield one very powerful and completely opposite exception: Days With My Father. Over the course of three emotionally charged years, Toledano documented his father’s struggle with dementia (and eventually, his death). For all of the calculating distance we find in Toledano’s other work, these images are personal, soulful and immensely touching. Toledano drops his guard and really lets us in.
It came as no surprise to find out from the festival’s artistic director, Krzysztof Candrowicz, that he had seen several people crying in front of Toledano’s Father pictures—one of the highest forms of flattery an emotional artwork can receive.
In Toledano’s own words, it was in his Father series that he first learned to be free to share his fears and his deepest feelings through his artwork. His newly found immediacy is clear in each picture. Although he claims to have deepened that effort in Maybe, his earnest effort seems to have gotten sidetracked in a cinematic hall of mirrors.
Still, Toledano clearly has his strong proponents and his work deserves to be seen before being judged. Go for the exhibition’s top-notch presentation and impressive scope. Stay if the images compel you.
Editors’ Note: The exhibition ” The Day Will Come: When Man Falls” ran from June to September 2015 at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Germany. Although the Triennale of Photographie has ended, you can still find out more about this past year’s edition and the plans for 2018!