conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 20.04.2023
PHILLIP TOLEDANO: "AI IS A MIRROR TO THE IMAGINATION"
PHOTOGRAPHY AND AI
After decades of working in photography, acclaimed artist Phillip Toledano tried something new and started creating images with AI. Hooked by the technology and the endless possibilities it comes with, Toledano can't stop challenging himself artistically and the viewer intellectually. In his first AI series titled ANOTHER AMERICA, he reflects on a world that doesn't seem to make sense any more. Toledano's AI creations fill an empty spot in the world of post-photography and make the artist consider cutting back on conventional photography.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Toledano discusses his experiences and thoughts about artificial intelligence and photography.
Phillip Toledano and I met in 2015, when his solo exhibition opened at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg on the occasion of the Triennial of Photography. I was touched by the exhibition because he openly reflects fears and experiences all of us share: the death of parents, an uncertain future, and the challenges of aging.
Over the years, Phil and I stayed in touch via Instagram, where he shared stories about his life and work. This is also where I learned that he started creating images in collaboration with AI. Honestly, I was impressed and kept going back to his Instagram to see if he kept going. He did. After a week of thinking about whether I should get in touch with him to see if he'd be interested in showing the project as part of the exhibition ALGORITHMIC EMPATHY. THE PROMISES OF AI, I just did it. The worst that could have happened is that he would have said no. He said yes, and both of us immediately started discussing the possibilities of AI and NFTs.
Anika Meier: Phil, you and I met in 2015, when your solo exhibition was on view at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg. You presented immensely touching works such as MAYBE and DAYS WITH YOUR FATHER. You imagined what your future could hold and faced the existential fear of aging. And over the course of three years, you documented your father’s struggle with dementia. A couple of weeks ago, I saw that you had started creating work with AI. I was surprised because I had this picture of you in my head working with a camera. How is it for you working with AI?
Phillip Toledano: It’s quite possibly the most liberating thing I’ve experienced. Before, my ideas were constrained by practical limitations: money, time, or relying on other people to help me realize them. But AI is boundless. It’s a mirror to the imagination. So it’s as good as your imagination.
AM: Why did you start working with AI? Out of curiosity?
PT: I’ve always been interested in technology. Oddly, so much of what I was seeing wasn’t very good. So I wondered if I might be able to create something interesting. It was sort of a challenge.
AM: When did you know you were an artist? Will AI change what it means to be an artist?
PT: I guess since I was a child. I was always making things. My father was a painter and a sculptor, so I grew up around art. I spent a decade or so working in advertising before I finally found the courage to be an artist. Unless AI starts coming up with ideas on its own (which seems likely at some point!), then I don’t think it will change what it means to be an artist. But it might allow people a means of expressing their ideas that they’ve never had before.
AM: Based on your, let‘s say, Instagram output of new work, AI seems to have inspired you. Is this the case, or has AI just made your life as an artist easier? You basically don‘t have to leave the house anymore to create any image you like.
PT: Hahaha! Well, it’s a bit of both. I finally have an outlet for all my ideas. AND I don’t have to leave the house! I do find it very inspiring. I’d say I spend five or six hours a day creating images.
AM: Do you now realize previously unrealized projects?
PT: No, so far everything I’ve made has been new ideas. Each image I make is based on an idea or an image that materializes in my mind at an odd moment. Then I usually spend a few hours trying to get something I like, and THEN I spend the next couple of hours nudging and fiddling to make small variations, additions, and substitutions to see where else I can go. It’s often a slightly frustrating journey, but the results usually make me happy.
AM: In your older work, you yourself are in the center. You challenge the viewer emotionally by dealing with universal topics such as birth and death, aging, and dying. I have the impression that you challenge the viewer intellectually with your AI work. Would you agree?
PT: My past work has been both extremely personal and extremely political. I would hope that whatever I make, using whatever techniques, would always challenge the viewer to think and feel something new.
AM: Your project, ANOTHER AMERICA, is a reflection of a world that doesn’t quite seem to make sense any more. Can art help overcome fears?
PT: I do believe that when the intangible becomes tangible, it becomes less frightening.
AM: How did you approach working on ANOTHER AMERICA? Did you have a storyline in mind as with your previous projects?
PT: There is no real storyline. I’m just following a path I can’t quite see beyond the next image.
AM: Why are the images of ANOTHER AMERICA set in the 1940s and 1950s?
PT: That era was a time when the image was, for the most part, always considered the truth. And because we’ve all seen imagery from that time period, it has a certain familiarity. So when strange things are happening in a familiar setting, it becomes all the more strange. Just like our world today.
AM: Photography was rejected. The Internet was rejected. Augmented reality, virtual reality, and NFTs—basically all new technologies are rejected in the beginning. Why don‘t we learn from history? That would very likely save us a lot of time.
PT: New things are usually rejected initially. Just think about the novel in the 18th century.
AM: Today‘s news: "An artist declined an award at a prominent photography contest because he had submitted an AI-generated work, proving, he said, that the competition couldn’t deal with art made by that means. The contest’s organizers, in turn, said they didn’t know the extent to which the work utilized AI." How do you feel about this incident as a photographer?
PT: I think the contemporary photography world is going to have to come to grips with AI in very short order. So I think it’s great that he did that. It’s going to force us all to talk about it.
AM: This incident shows that we seem to struggle to keep up with AI. What could be a solution?
PT: AI is a fast-moving river. We just have to jump in and let the current take us.
AM: Which term do you use to describe your work created in collaboration with AI? Photography? Post-photography? AI art?
PT: I think it needs a new word, but I’m not sure what that is. It’s not photography, but image-making, but with someone’s (AI's) voice in your ear.
AM: Will you keep taking photos with a camera?
PT: I have to say, for the kind of work I like, photography now seems slightly dull.
Phillip Toledano (b. 1968) is a British photographer living and working in New York City. As an artist, he works across mediums from photography to installation. His conceptual themes are primarily socio-political. Toledano has three monographs published on his artistic practice, with the most recent, Days With My Father, being received to critical acclaim.
Toledano considers himself a conceptual artist: Everything starts with an idea, and the idea determines the execution. Consequently, his work varies in medium, ranging from photography to installation, sculpture, painting, and video.
Phillip Toledano is part of the exhibition ALGORITHMIC EMPATHY. THE PROMISES OF AI presented at the gallery in Berlin in collaboration with VerticalCrypto Art, 18-23 April, 2023.
UPCOMING NFT DROP: ANOTHER AMERICA by Phillip Toledano will be released as part of ALGORITHMIC EMPATHY. THE PROMISES OF AI on 21 APRIL at 6 PM CEST on verticalcrypto.art. Inquire about the work via email to email@example.com.