After his parents died, London-raised, New York-based photographer Phillip Toledano found a cardboard box in their attic. It was filled with the belongings of his sister, Claudia, who had died in an accident at the age of nine, and of whom his parents never spoke again. “It was the first connection I’ve had with my sister in 40 years,” Toledano says in a phone interview.
Toledano’s new book, When I Was Six, documents the contents of this long-sealed box: a tiny gingham dress, a stubby pencil engraved with his sister’s name, a ceramic giraffe, a lock of hair, family snapshots, and a death certificate, among other objects. The series shows how seemingly humdrum objects become vessels of memory when a loved one dies.
“The immediate years after Claudia’s death are static hiss, like the space between radio stations,” Toledano writes in the book. The only thing he remembers from this period of his childhood is an intense preoccupation with astronomy and far-flung planets. “I lost myself in those imaginary worlds,” he writes. “There was comfort in the solitude of distance. If I was alone, no one else could disappear.”
In making this book, the photographer rediscovered this comfort, and decided to pair images of his sister’s belongings with his own version of astronomy photos. Since he didn’t have access to NASA-grade astronomy photo equipment, Toledano created miniature cosmic vistas inside his own home. He filled a fish tank with salt water and injected paint and condensed milk into it with plastic syringes, then added tiny planets–marbles, suspended rocks–and, in one case, a plastic astronaut. Photographed up close, the colors in the water resemble swirling nebulae. Juxtaposed with pictures of Claudia’s possessions, these spacescapes “provide the viewer with the same kind of escape that my obsession with astronomy gave me as a child,” Toledano says. Some evoke a child’s image of what heaven might be like. Without these images, which allow you zoom out from tragedy, the series would be “unremittingly sad.”
“I didn’t have the courage to do this project before,” Toledano says. “Who wants to open a box that’s been definitively closed and unopened for 40 years?” But in photography, Toledano has found a powerful coping mechanism, as seen in his previous photo books confronting personal struggle, including Days With My Father, about the death of his mother and his father’s dementia. “I stumbled upon a way to have a dialogue with myself,” he says. “I figure out things about my life that I need to figure out through art and words.”
When I Was Six is available here for $52.