"The potentials of mere aestheticism are limited" - An interview with Zoltán Tombor
16 December, 2019
Zoltán Tombor has made a name for himself that rings familiar not only in Hungary. He is in the international top league, with an original outlook and restless creativity that have long gone beyond fashion photography. He works for such renowned magazines as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Elle and Time, has made Alicia Keys her favourite portrait, and photographs his beautiful wife, Nelli. We were talking about the upcoming, fifth issue of their bookazine, Supernation.
When did the idea of a project that you completely owned come up?
It has been our pet idea for a long time to create an independent publication that facilitates free creation, and comes out in print. Following a year of procrastination, we started designing the first issue in the autumn of 2014, with my friend, Zalán Péter Salát, who is a designer.
Can you name another magazine with a theme or concept like Supernation?
I'm not aware of a magazine like Supernation, which represents an unusual transition between a monograph and a periodical. There are periodicals with issues dedicated to single artists, but each issue has a different artist in its focus.
Why did you insist on a printed magazine when most of your audience will, in the end, access the periodical online?
These days, we look at photos almost exclusively on monitors and phones, and prints are completely out of fashion, though the photograph is originally a physical object. The size, touch and quality of the print is part and parcel of the experience. A family album is unlike a framed photo on the desk or a giant print on the museum wall, and each provides a different experience and a different relationship to the photo. We hold a book or magazine in our hands or lap, the relationship is intimate, and even the light conditions of the moment become important.
Paper has a touch, a smell and a sound, and the very rhythm of turning the pages influences the whole of the visual experience. It is a far more complex and corporeal form of perception than that provided by a display.
How much time do you put into an issue? Are you pressed for deadlines or can you work at your own pace?
It is for production reasons that the magazine comes out every autumn. In fashion, we are roughly half a year ahead of the current season, so material for autumn and winter is made between March and July, and for the summer and the spring, between October and February. In the summer, it's simpler to shoot at outdoor locations or in natural light, because the days are longer and the weather is generally better. Depending on the length and theme of the issue in question, it usually takes three to four months, from planning the shooting to the production of the printed publication.
How is it distributed? Can readers/collectors subscribe and get a copy?
Supernation is meant primarily for the small group of professionals I work with or hope to work with, so it serves both unrestrained creativity and promotion. Issue 4 was up for sale at some iconic bookstores and newsagents in Budapest, London and New York, but the first three issues and this fifth are not on the market.
Supernation is completely independent, free from sponsorship. What does it feel like to create like that?
We have had many offers from advertisers and sponsors over the years, but the original idea was to be completely free, so we only use our own resources. The creative aspects of this degree of freedom are great, while it often makes production more difficult because it depends on the advertisers whether a major brand is available. The themes also changed over time, we are now less focused on some fashion content, and aim for storytelling and realizing our own aesthetic and visual ideas.
The latest issue has a series that is more documentarian in style, storytelling is indeed the point.
I've been photographing fashion for 25 years, and I'm more and more convinced the potentials of mere aestheticism are limited. Fashion is a great platform, but it wouldn't be sufficient for me without a story, and in this case, some lyricism. It is exciting to blend photo-reportage with fiction, especially in a story that is so close to our hearts.
For all previous issues, most of the material was photographed in the US. How come you now chose Hungary?
The fifth issue is special because it was produced in Hungary, and its main character is Barbara Palvin, the best-known Hungarian model. The subject of Issue 5 is homecoming, returning to the roots, which I demonstrate with my childhood memories, in a well-known East European setting. I'm very grateful to Barbara and her agents for helping me to realize this joint project. Barbi was a great choice, as someone who has first-hand experience of this world, and since we are close friends, the photo series could become personal and intimate.
Apart from the two of you, there are many more things about the magazine that are Hungarian. Was it a conscious choice to work with Hungarian contributors?
The first Supernation, which came out in 2015, was dedicated to Vanessa Axente, who proved a perfect choice for a modern, clean-cut, black-and-white fashion series that was shot in New York. With Vanessa, her character was the chief consideration, it was purely coincidental that we were both Hungarians. In 2016, we worked with several models, for four separate sets. The three fashion-themed sets were shot in London, while the fourth, which shows only hands, was made in Budapest.
Neither of the models in the third issue was Hungarian; I photographed Ling Liu in New York, and Lara Mullen in London. In last year's issue, Kinga Rajzák was the main character, and she was not only the model but contributed text as well. It was a like a report on a one-week road trip from Upstate New York to Coney Island. The story is a contemplation of, or meditation on, American culture, viewed through the lens of a European. Kinga is a real rock star, with matchless experience in the culture of fashion.
Does the complete independence of Supernation mean there are less rules? Do you allow spontaneity to lead you, or are your own rules set in stone?
Every production is based on careful planning and scheduling, which is mostly to the credit of Nelli. The issue we've had to put the most work in to date was the last one, because most of the crew came in from abroad, and it took considerable energy to find the locations and do the shooting. Where spontaneity does come into play to a great extent is during the actual shooting, but that of course also takes precise planning.
Which shooting for Supernation has been the most special? Owing to the location, the model, the concept, the weather or whatever?
The shooting that got to be the most special was with Kinga. On the first day of the shoot, at dawn, I realized I had left the rolls of film in the fridge at home.
Vanessa Axente, Kinga Rajzák, Barbara Palvin... they are the most sought-after Hungarian models. Who else would you like to work with in the near future?
We haven't started planning the next issue yet, but in 2020 the main character may well not be a model.