April 27, 2015

"When I opened the box, it was like a museum."

When Phillip Toledano was six, his sister was killed in a fire. Forty years later, he found a way to bring her back.  The Lost Child

Three decades later, Toledano’s mother died. Three years after that, his father followed. “When your parents die, they leave you with a lot of unopened boxes,” he tells me. “Literally and metaphorically. You can choose to open them or not. I chose to open them all.” The premise of When I Was Six is a literal box found among his mother’s effects – a scruffy, Sellotaped cardboard item from which Toledano drew objects, cards, official documents and family photographs. All of them related to Claudia. “When I opened the box,” he says, “it was like a museum”.

And a museum, in a way, is what he has made of it, systematically photographing its contents, discovering in the process not only his dead sister but his parents and their desire to shield him from grief. In the pages of his book, each piece – a piggy bank, a pencil with her name on it, a note to their mother – is shot in partial shadow, as if left lying on a window sill, and only occasionally coming into view, or consciousness. Interspersed with these images are landscapes concocted by Toledano to look like they are shot in space – reflecting his childhood preoccupation, but also what he calls the “static hiss” that characterised the years after Claudia’s death.

 Lost Child
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“I’m talking about very obvious things,” Toledano tries to persuade me, “parents and death and aging and children”. But in his devotion to commemorating private moments long-term, in respecting the everyday as well as the traumatic, Toledano is producing an extraordinary document. If Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood was impressive for its loyalty to a lifelong idea, then Toledano’s has an added shiver of reality. At a time when everyone photographs everything and every photograph is ephemeral, Toledano’s images, however apparently quotidian, uphold the opposite: they are intended against the act of forgetting.
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There is a sort of chronological double-take at work in When I Was Six, because although some of the material relates to Claudia’s death, much of it was amassed throughout her life, long before Toledano’s mother could have known it would become a memorial. “My mother was like that,” Toledano says casually, “she kept everything.” But I wonder if Toledano is now doing something similar, not hoarding objects perhaps, but becoming, through his photographs, an archivist of his own life. “I’ve never thought about that,” he says, laughing. “But I guess I’m similar to my mum: she kept the things, and I keep… the feelings.”
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It’s important to Toledano that these events can be spoken about. Already, the raft of responses he’s had to his books have, in his own description, made his life better. “People rely on the McWord vocabulary of ‘I’m sorry for your loss’,” he suggests. “I despise all those words – ‘I lost my grandfather’. Lost him where? In the supermarket? I don’t want to use the suburbia of words, I want to use the word that’s in the heart of the thing.”
And so, he says, while most art is in a literal sense fairly useless, this work of his has turned out to be useful to other people. For that unintentional effect, he’s incredibly grateful. “We live behind such high walls most of the time, and art has the ability to destroy them in a very quick blow. It’s beautiful when that happens.”

Phillip Toledano's new book When I Was Six is not yet available in the U.S.

Posted by Jill Fallon at April 27, 2015 1:15 PM | Permalink