A Photographer’s Uncomfortable Look at the Grim Possibilities of His Future

Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” had a glorious Broadway revival in 1996. I saw it three times. In the play, Agnes and Tobias, a retired well-off couple, are visited by their good friends Edna and Harry, who arrive at their door in a panic, asking to stay. When the hosts ask their friends what’s wrong, Edna can only say, “We were frightened.”

Harry and Edna’s terror is never explained in the play. It remained an unnamed fear. When I saw the play, I was only 26 and didn’t really understand this ambiguous fear. Now, at age 46, I think I get it.

phil_toledano_ft2

Midlife crisis is all about fear. Fear of an uncertain future, fear of illness and old age, fear of being alone, fear of dying. After turning 40 several years ago, I experienced what all conscious men experience around that time by entertaining thoughts of my own mortality. The blind invincibility I felt in my 20s had long dissipated, and I started to feel the fear.

Manhattan photographer Phil Toledano felt the fear, too. After caring for his father in the throes of dementia until his death, which was around the time he turned 41 or so, Mr. Toledano did something most unusual. Instead of treating the existential midlife freak-out by acquiring things like a Corvette, a twenty-two year old, clothes from Top Man or other age-defying airbags that soften the inevitability of the inevitable, he created something: something bizarre, something dark and something downright disturbing. And it’s fantastic.

Photo by Phil Toledano, via The New York Times
Photo by Phil Toledano, via The New York Times

Photographs are about the past. With a photography project entitled “Maybe,” Mr. Toledano looked to his own future – a very possibly grim future. He got a DNA test to examine his genetic likelihood for certain ailments, he consulted fortune tellers and tarot card readers, and he researched statistics from insurance companies. Based on his collected scientific, psychic and statistical information, he worked with a prosthetic makeup artist to create possible future versions of himself to be photographed in their respective future contexts. In this project, Mr. Toledano’s future was not particularly bright.

Photo by Phil Toledano, via The New York Times
Photo by Phil Toledano, via The New York Times

To put it simply, his future selves were destined to die from the seven deadly sins, mixed with a little disease, destitution and despair for good measure. The result was beautifully bleak.

Photo by Phil Toledano, via The New York Times
Photo by Phil Toledano, via The New York Times

As part of its Op-Docs series, The New York Times produced an incredible 26-minute documentary about Mr. Toledano’s journey through this project. Titled “The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano,” the short doc was directed by his friend Joshua Seftel. It’s fascinating.

The future depicted in the completed photo series doesn’t end well. It’s not clean. The pictures ask the uncomfortable question: What if it doesn’t end well? What if this is the future for some of us? It happens to so many. Why should destiny give me a pass? This is the terror.

What I love about this project is that it doesn’t sugarcoat or pander. It’s brutally honest. We would all hope that everything will be okay and that we’ll die peacefully in our sleep. But what if it isn’t and what if we don’t? Mr. Toledano confronted the fear of his own possibly grim mortality and dared to ask that giant “What if?”

Photo by Phil Toledano, via The New York Times
Photo by Phil Toledano, via The New York Times

At age 46, I have enough personal experience to know that everything is temporary and that the only thing that matters is today, here and now. Life can change in an instant, from horrible to wonderful and vice versa. With a single phone call years ago, my life went from a destitute mess to a creatively fulfilling project that paid me $10,000 per month. Today, I’m reduced to a sad scrap of retainers that brings home a pathetic $26 per day (before taxes). To say that I’m freaked out, terrified and struggling daily to keep feelings of worthlessness at bay is an understatement. I have no idea what’s going to happen, which is probably why Mr. Toledano’s project resonated so personally with me.

I do know, however, that I am lucky. I am lucky to have a loving family and good friends, without whom I’d be totally fucked. And I also have two of the best dogs one could ever wake up with. One notable detail in Mr. Toledano’s photographs is that he is depicted alone. Even when there are other people physically present in the images, he is, essentially, by himself. The photos appear to be outcomes for a man who alienated, abused or abandoned his real relationships and loved ones. If there is a lesson here, maybe it that we should be careful to treasure and nurture our connections to those who bring love and light into our lives and return that love and light in kind.

Edward Albee claimed that his plays were not necessarily meant to be enjoyed. He created them to put a mirror up to the audience and make us uncomfortable with what we saw. And as George Grizzard, my dear old friend and a brilliant actor who won the Tony Award for his performance in that 1996 revival of “A Delicate Balance” told me, the actor’s job (and the play’s job) is to tell us the truth. “We go to the theater to see ourselves,” he said. With his audacious “Maybe” project, Phil Toledano has done a similar thing, creating mirrors that reflect grim possible futures. It is uncomfortable, it is challenging and it is sad. But it is quite possibly the truth.

Phil Toledo (without makeup), via The New York Times
Phil Toledano (without makeup), via The New York Times

See all the photos from the series: www.mrtoledano.com/maybe

One comment

  1. Thanks for the heads up on this. Just finished watching it. Incredibly powerful and emotional. As someone who has just turned 50 it resonated with me.

Talk to me...