It’s a worldview to emigrate as an artist – an interview with Zoltán Tombor
25 • 04 • 20Vera A Fehér
Late last year the grapevine was abuzz with news of Zoltán Tombor, one of the best-known Hungarian fashion photographers, moving back from New York to Hungary. In December he made his debut with a new set, Homeward. A few months have passed since then, and we were curious what plans he had for his professional future, and how it felt to move back from the US.
What was the path like that led you to photography? Did you already have qualifications as a photographer when you left Hungary?
I am self-taught. The only course I took was the photography club at secondary school. I wrestled with my father’s Minolta, and black-and-white stock, which in time I learned to develop and make prints from. And then the camera was relegated to the shelf for some time, and it wasn’t until I was 21 that I had started to take photos again, without any particular purpose, taking shots of my immediate surroundings, my family. It was exciting to realize that looking at the photos elicited intensive emotions, a bit like when you watch a favourite film again. You know what will happen next, but you still laugh and cry—it is a joyful spiritual exercise. Over time, I felt more and more compelled to document and aestheticize with the camera, and it became a routine that has stayed with me. I have almost come to believe that whatever I fail to photograph has not even happened.
How did you end up Milan, and then in New York?
I worked as a photographer in Hungary for roughly eight years, with more or less success, mostly making portraits and doing fashion assignments for magazines, brands and advertising agencies. Then in 2003 I decided to show my work abroad, because the challenges here were becoming few and far between, and I needed a change of air. I started a new life in Milan, where I only had a few friends and I didn’t even speak Italian. In hindsight, it was a pretty bold move. My Budapest portfolio was not competitive enough in the Italian market, and since I hadn’t been an assistant to a major photographer, it took more time to set off than I had anticipated. My stubbornness, diligence and the fright over how my savings were shrinking eventually paid off, I landed an agency contract, and could start to work for international magazines and clients. During the most difficult period I drew help from the works of Sándor Márai and André Kertész, which are informed by the curiosity, ambition and desperation that usually motivated me. I met Nelli in 2009, and we have been married for ten years. Thanks to her, I found the power and courage to have a stab at my old dream, America, and in 2011 we moved to New York.
What advice would you give to those who contemplate a similar international career in photography?
To emigrate as an artist is more of a worldview, or question of attitude, than a geographical issue. If you keep weighing your chances, and wondering whether it’s worth it, or whether you can be successful over there, there’s a fair chance you’ll be back soon. What a career-starter should ask themselves, I think, is this: what are those changes in my surroundings, what are the new experiences and influences, that I need for my creative work to come into its own? There’s barely a successful artist I’ve met whose chief goal was to become famous. The greatest reward of creative work is what it makes you, not what it allows you to get. Why I felt dissatisfied with the Hungarian working environment was the very limited opportunities for editorial and commercial photography, and it was essential for the development of my aesthetic sensibility and professional skills to study in a milieu that was more mature and accomplished in terms of the culture of fashion. By way of encouragement, I can say that while it may be a very large spiritual and financial investment to start a new life abroad, the experiences you may get overseas cannot be substituted for in Budapest. To this day, I draw the most strength from recognizing and accepting my vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
How many years did you spend abroad before coming back? Was it photography all along that kept you there?
I went when I was 30, and I’m 47 now. These seventeen years have been an artistically fruitful period, what I learned abroad has been very useful. However, you shouldn’t forget that you usually fight the greatest fights in your life with yourself, and you choose the stage of the battle as well, and it’s irrelevant in this regard where that land lies. Emotionally, it’s much better to be in Hungary, where both of our families and most of our close friends live, and a liveable city like Budapest makes everyday life more convenient. We’re often asked what it feels like to be back, and I’m almost expected to offer an order of rank, proofs. It’s good to be in your home city. Not better than being in London, or worse than in New York, it just simply is good. Going abroad is still part of my work, and when the virus panic subsides, I hope to be able to travel again, from September.
How does the corona virus pandemic affect you? How can you survive this professionally?
I think I became infected one and a half or two months ago. In February and March, I took around 30 flights, transferred at Europe’s largest airports, I got in contact, indirectly, with millions of people in taxis, metros, all sorts of public transport. I returned from Spain on 15 March, my birthday. The last job I did was on Mallorca, an assignment that was to last a week. In the end, the three days we were meant to spend shooting had to be crammed into 18 hours, because airports were already to be closed the next afternoon.
The virus is currently calculated to cause infections in several waves, and the solution, a vaccine, is not to be had within a year. The economic and psychological consequences of an extended quarantine should not be ignored either, and I think it would be important to test as many people as possible so that those who have got over the illness and acquired immunity can return to work as soon as possible. Work compelled me to travel a lot in recent years, and I have to admit I enjoy a few months of enforced holiday. There may well come a time when a certificate-based system is introduced in the profession, which allows you to travel freely and continue with your work if you can produce an official medical paper. I’m contacted by a lot of brands because content-production cannot stop. To some of them I sold ideas for photographing objects, and there’s a client who ordered a series that features Nelli, and which the two of us will photograph in the corridor of our house, and on the roof, without a crew. There is something romantic to this garage project because it reminds me of the happy and unrestrained time when I began photography.
"Fashion documentarism" is an expression that often comes up in connection with the series, Homeward. Do these photos relate your personal thoughts on moving home or homesickness, with the instruments of fashion photography, a language you speak well?
You have encapsulated it better than we have managed to do so far. I’m not all that keen on genre-specific pigeonholes, because these labels are very confining. Fashion documentarian is an expression I came up with, in an attempt to define a previously undescribed genre where the clichés of fashion are present only in “traces,” and the emphasis is on storytelling. In the case of Homeward, the scenes of the story are the locations of my own childhood. I wanted the pictures to create a milieu we are all familiar with, where the primary experience that arises is based on the viewer’s own memories. To my mind, fiction is sometimes capable of reflecting reality more accurately than a report or an account. Homeward was used for the fifth issue of Supernation, and a selection with 21 pictures was exhibited.
Can a photo lose its roots in applied photography in an exhibition context?
What matters for me is who made a photo, and for what purpose; later, of course, the context in which it appears at an exhibition also becomes important. As regards interpretation, photography is an unconventional form, because its function is more to refer to something than to offer a specific explanation. It seeks to suggest, rather than prove, things. As a consequence, pictures can have ambiguous meanings, including ones that are at odds with the artist’s original intentions. Art is like a mirror, and even photography will not tell the viewer more than they know. I look upon photography as a real, living medium that’s between me and the world, and that makes it possible to make new discoveries about the human soul and emotions. So the answer is yes, a photo can completely lose its roots in applied photography when viewed in a new context. However, it’s a point worth making that even when recontextualized, a poor photo usually remains poor; you may change its meaning, but its quality remains constant.
How can your own personal world appear in a fashion set?
On the one hand, my opinion of my own work is subjective, since I cannot view it from the outside. On the other hand, I’m a photographer, and its a risky undertaking to explain in words what I am like to people who understand written words. Since my own pictures have become part of me, inseparably, speaking about them would be analysing myself. The curiosity, the humour, the sensitivity and the irreverence that are part of my personality are obviously there in my photos. I would say I harbour an invincible curiosity about the human soul and emotions, which I try to realize with the instruments of portrait, still life, and landscape.
Since very early childhood, I have tried to decipher everyone I’ve met. I try to use my camera to get a glimpse of what’s inside people. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes calls portrait photography a field of forces in which four different influences meet: alongside the characteristics the subject attributes to himself, there is what he wants to present to the photographer in the given moment. Third, there is how I, the photographer see him, and fourth, the way I want to show him. These four things more or less determine what a portrait will be. My father was the first person I realized did not have a photo face. He changes nothing about himself when I pick up the camera, and initially I was almost shocked by this kind of sincerity and dedication. For years, I have been working on a series that looks at the story of our family. I photograph my father's daily life in his vineyard, where he is surrounded by all the important memories that define him, and consequently me, in such fine detail.
During the most difficult period I drew help from the works of Sándor Márai and André Kertész, which are informed by the curiosity, ambition and desperation that usually motivated me.
One of the main characters in the Homeward series is Barbara Palvin, who is a friend of yours. What changes in a picture when the relationship between a photographer and a model turns personal?
The main difference is that we don’t act formally, or feel compelled to comply, and we don’t need to observe traditional etiquette. Our dialogue is more direct, intimate, more real. With Homeward, it was important that Barbara’s character and temperament were essentially comparable to those of the figure she performed, which I found lent authenticity to our shared story.
There is something romantic to this garage project because it reminds me of the happy and unrestrained time when I began photography.
The world has changed considerably in the wake of #metoo, especially the film industry, but photography as well. Has this had any effect on your work?
The movement represented by the metoo hashtag has enabled a lot of models and actors to talk about their humiliation, and has created a safer working environment for them. On the other hand, I often feel hindered in my work by this unnecessarily rigid and over-disciplined form of communication; it’s difficult to work when you cannot touch the clothes, arrange the hair, or relax the participant with the jokes I used to tell. Today you can’t make compliments about the model’s physical appearance because that is degrading, and sexy is a taboo word on the set. It is often difficult to make sense of this new system in an industry where the participants are chosen on account of their appearance, their fortunate physical endowments. Most of the better-known models promote themselves on Instagram typically with their buttocks, which it is ethical to ogle but criminal to comment on. At the same time, the many baseless criminal complaints have no consequences within the profession. There is no doubt that the Weinstein types, the common criminals, or rather, psychopaths, should be put in prison, but this doesn’t alter the fact that the #metoo movement has not changed the number of those who long for a big role in international showbusiness, and persistently make use of their charms to get ahead.
What is contemporary fashion photography like?
More and more, contemporary fashion photography is affectation and mannerism, has become a boring mass product, like chewing gum. The masses who follow fashion are now interested in other things, and the cult of the Instagram stars that characterizes the market has practically no cultural benefits or purpose of creating value. However, the perfect models featured on the front pages of magazines don’t actually exist; these images are the products of the joint work of professional crews, and they have no reality to them. If something is fashion, it’s anything but substance, because its function is, first and foremost, appearance. There is of course an enjoyable creative part to aestheticization, but if Robert Frank’s work is poetry, and Cartier-Bresson is a short story, then fashion photography is, at best, a nursery rhyme.
Do you plan, along with your move back, to put more energy into your creative work, as opposed to the applied one?
Since the start of my career I’ve been experimenting with landscapes and still lifes, but that kind of photography was more of a form of relaxation alongside the commissions. It was when we moved to the US that I began to get down to creative or artistic work, photography for its own sake, where the chief consideration was to amuse myself. I took most of the photos in Brooklyn, trying above all to find a way to see differently things that I had repeatedly observed—to photograph things so that they appear something else than originally. I went to lectures and workshops, bought more and more books, and in time I began to follow the work of artists whose methods are different from the routines of portrait and fashion photographers, often having no models in their photos. Their chief objective is self-expression, the sophisticated and straightforward articulation of their emotions, ideas and problems. My favourites are Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Larry Sultan, Alec Soth, Todd Hido, Robert Adams, Mitch Epstein, Gregory Halpern, Jason Fulford and Katy Grannan. What I plan to do in the foreseeable future is to spend more time on unrestricted creation, while doing the commissions. There are still a lot of stories I’d like to tell, ones I couldn’t tell without photographs.
Will Hungarian fashion photography avail itself of your return home, or will you stick to the jobs from abroad?
I do not plan to make fashion shots for Hungarian magazines, though I will certainly participate in the production in Hungary of series meant for foreign markets.
What was the origin of the idea of Supernation in 2015? How would you actually describe Supernation? Is it a creative or an applied series?
I had long wanted a self-published periodical, a yearly presentation of my current, independent, non-commissioned work. I put it off for some time, and then in 2014 we started to design the first issue with my friend, Zalán Salát. He has been making books for almost twenty years, and the design, the typography and the printing are all to his credit. Supernation has changed a lot since its first release, and what was initially fashion-oriented content has become a more unrestrained creative message. This publication is halfway between a magazine and a photo album, having both the format of a periodical and the structure of a monograph. It’s completely self-financed, no advertisers are involved.
Would it be fair to say Supernation also helped you to refine your creative concept?
That’s right, that’s a good point. When the first issue of Supernation was released, I didn’t expect my attitude to be changed so much by the birth of the publication alone. In the life of an artist, the desire to create freely will, I think, find a way to manifest, and the concept of Supernation is a great opportunity for me.
Can you imagine giving up fashion photography completely for creative photography?
In our profession, many of the top artists continue to work in the commercial sector, because only a very select group can live on gallery sales, royalties and education. What matters, I think, is the relative proportion of the times you spend in the two fields, and especially where you focus your attention. A photographer who keeps working on catalogues and advertisements, and bustles around in fashion, will probably find less success in art circles than those who concentrate their attention on creative photography and thinking. I find the work of Juergen Teller, Vivian Sassen, Wolfgang Tillmanns and Ryan McGinley exemplary, their images are seminal in both art and fashion.
Translator: Árpád Mihály