Zoltán Tombor: "Photography is magic"
28 November, 2019
He was one of Hungary's most in-demand fashion photographers when Zoltán Tombor left almost everything behind and moved to Milan, then on to New York, to realize his dream and make his way into the world's top league. He believes photography was created so that we can communicate something we could not without images. This time around, however, he chose to communicate in words.
You were one of the most sought-after fashion photographers in Hungary when your world turned upside down in a second.
I couldn't seem to get enough of life. I felt, both as a person and as a professional, that I had everything I had desired. Then, on 16 August, 2003, I was riding my sports motorbike on Árpád Bridge when I ran into a car at 100 kph. I immediately lost consciousness. I almost died. Everything that had been part of my everyday life had become impossible to reach. For the first time in my life I had realized I was as easy to substitute as everyone else.
Shortly before my accident, an Italian friend, Monty Shadow said something that did no good to my self-esteem at the time but has remained with me: "It's marvellous you're one of the best fashion photographers in Hungary, but unfortunately it doesn't mean a thing." The rehabilitation took months, and I had time to think about what photography meant for me. Why was I doing only fashion photography, which may have been a demanding genre, but was little more than aestheticizing? Why didn't I devote more energy to artistic work? What is the artistic value of a photo, beyond beauty? What are its cultural benefits? How much harder would it be to build a career in a foreign country? More and more of the dreams I entertained in my early career demanded attention. I decide to move to Italy.
Without a Plan B.
I left no doors open for a return. In hindsight, I'm glad I took the jump without a safety net, and did not return a year later. I sold my flat in Budapest and my car. In 2004 I was already living in Milan, where I started dropping my portfolio off at photo agencies, which, considering I had come from Hungary, was no plain sailing. My friend, Monty, helped me a lot to find my way around the Italian fashion scene, even introduced me to Franca Sozzani, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, who for some time had had power of life and death, so to speak, in the Italian fashion industry. I spent a long time hanging around before a Milan agency hired me, and that helped me in the years that followed to work with brands like Vogue Italia, Marie Claire, La Perla and Revlon. In Italy, everything was about good food, wine, music, girls and fashion. I had a great time in that milieu.
You learnt a lot during those eight years, especially about yourself
You always fight your greatest fight with yourself. The settings, your friends, may change, but it is up to you in the end what desires you articulate, whether you want to be an artist or an artisan. Catapulting into Italy from Hungary is like moving to Budapest from a provincial town, and it's a comparable leap to relocate from Milan to New York. What probably made it simpler for me was that I spoke English and had a signed contract with an agency.
I want to work my way into the ranks of the world's best photographers, work very hard to this end every day, and make lots of sacrifices. I struggled a lot to realize my shortcomings, as well as the limitations of my skills, but they haven't put me off my goal yet.
You owe your success less to how good you are at what you're doing and more to how you sell it. The baseline in America is that you're good at lighting, aestheticize in an advanced manner, communicate effectively, and are a good team player. In New York, there are ten thousand highly qualified photographers vying for clients. I find it funny when they introduce me in Hungary as the Hungarian photographer known the world over. I simply don't understand why it has become standard practice in Hungary to lionize, falsely and overly, those Hungarians who have attained success in a foreign country. It's easy to say in Hungary that Hungarian wines are the best in the world, or that the country churns out supermodels, but the trouble is, that's not true. Tokaji Aszú and Barbara Palvin are great performers, but Hungary in these fields deserves a mention, at best, and is no key player. Not to mention that this extravagant self-glorification overshadows even what are real successes.
With his erotic images, Helmut Newton redefined the concept of the nude, while André Kertész revolutionized photography as the founder of the modern outlook. You were greatly influenced by their art.
I needed role models while I was in search of my "voice"—while I wanted my images to resemble those of some great forerunner.
For a time, I wanted to make photos in the style of Newton, then in the style of Kertész. These days I work to make my images have as much Tombor in them as possible.
In the 1920s and 1930s, several astonishingly talented photographers left Hungary. They included Martin Munkácsi, who is a seminal figure of American fashion photography, Robert and Cornell Capa, Brassaď, and László Moholy-Nagy, and they are the equal of Henri-Cartier Bresson, Richard Avedon, Josef Koudelka, and even Robert Frank. Of my contemporaries, the artists I like most are Jim Goldberg, Alec Soth and Todd Hido, while in portraiture and fashion photography, I am fascinated by the work of Péter Hapák, Vincent van de Wijngaard, and Jack Davison.
Newton said the successful fashion photo should not look like one. What do you think makes a fashion photo successful?
Newton was right. A photo tells more about its maker and their intention than about the model. Ideally, a photo tells about something that cannot be seen in the image itself. By contrast, all that a fashion photograph is about is a beautiful person posing in some nice clothes, selling, in other words, dreams, prompting people to buy. This is not to disparage commercial photography, but as regards its content, there's no point in comparing it to works of art, because its purpose is merely aesthetic.
In 2018, my friend, Albert-László Barabási published his book on success, The Formula, and one of my favourite ideas in it goes like this: "Your success isn't about you and your performance. It's about us and how we perceive your performance." Success, to my mind, is not luck, nor is it a mystery. Success is the natural result or outcome of a continuous and focused effort towards what we want.
In fashion, designers keep redesigning what already exists. In such a context, how can you make something individual and original?
We keep repeating stuff. As you cannot make anything new in fashion, so in fine-art photography there is nothing new to photograph after Bresson or Frank. I at least haven't been able to. The secret may be to give a new interpretation to ideas and feelings that have been expressed in images, and that interpretation will become individual thanks to the auteur's personal touch, the quality of the execution. There is, in other words, something that only I can tell in a given manner.
You have worked with such publishers as Condé Nast, Mondadori and Hearst, and with magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. How do you as a photographer accommodate the brands' communication objectives or messages?
Every client chooses me on the strength of my portfolio. An artistic director or editor will know when the subject and visual style make you the best choice for the job. These days, rarely do I get a job I find difficult to square with my personal visual idiom. In time I learnt about the interests and intellectual needs of a particular magazine's female readership, and what it takes for an image to have that Vogue, Elle or Bazaar feel. That varies across markets, of course, but every magazine has its distinctive set of stylistic and aesthetic traits. A series I make for Elle would not be published by Vogue. The other way round, now, that wouldn't be out of the question, because Vogue is a bit more upmarket. (Laughs.)
Do you remember the first photo you took?
There's a photo on my phone which I took at age thirteen, and it was certainly among the first. As you can see, it's a photo of my mother. A staggering artistic achievement! (Laughs.) It's just as well you can't judge a photographer by a single picture, just as you cannot judge a film director by a frame or a scene. They wouldn't reveal the true genius of a Fellini. The judgement of art is subjective, and consequently its quality is difficult to measure; it depends greatly on the viewer's knowledge of art and culture, their intellect and imagination.
I started to take photos in 1994, and fell in love with image-making during the first few years, teaching it all to myself. I am a textile chemist by qualification. My father, who is called Öcsi Tombor in the profession, was perhaps the best dyer and colourist in the country, and tried to "terrorize" me into taking up the trade. He's now happy he failed. (Laughs.) I spent my childhood under the spell of colours and "latest cuts." My sister, Saci, became a makeup artist and beautician at the end of the eighties, and regularly worked with Tamás Náray, thanks to which I could photograph his fashion shows, and later work for his catalogues. Laci Hajas is also a relative of mine, and he introduced me to a lot of people in the profession. My portfolio was slowly growing, and in 1998 I opened my own studio at Mafilm. It was a fortunate period, with international magazines, such as the Cosmopolitan, Elle and Glamour, already available in Hungary, and there being Hungarian ones like Bonton, Voilŕ and Elite. I had a lot of commissions.
What inspired you to choose this career?
It wasn't so much that I chose to be a photographer as photography chose me. I've never been interested in anything else. I remember borrowing my first camera from my dad, and photographing my girlfriends in all sorts of situations. (Smiles.)
I am convinced art can be learnt only to a degree, and talent is something you're born with. It is only the technique of photography that you can master; how you think in images, humour, sensitivity, intuition, logic, or inventiveness—these cannot be learnt.
Just consider how many people can play the piano brilliantly, yet there is only one Rachmaninoff or Ádám György born every decade. What I may have enjoyed most initially was that by holding the camera I was the one in control. It was only later that I started to appreciate the ability of my images to tell more, to tell what I think about the world.
Which is a striking feature of Supernation, the publication you launched in 2015.
For quite some time, we have been viewing everything on monitors, and have forgotten how a photo is a physical object, which has light cast on it, which you hold in your hand or in a frame, and which is considered less and less a work of art. I wanted to create my own publication, a brand that could also be considered a business card. Also, I wanted my ego to assume a physical form every year in the form of a bookazine, which you can find on bookshelves, if only in a limited number of copies. As for its format, its a collection of my fashion and documentary series that changes all the time. For the fifth issue, which came out in October, I photographed Barbara Palvin on locations in Hungary, in a slightly unconventional form.
What distinguishes an image by Tombor?
My signature, as some visual harmony, is hopefully there in every one of my works, whether I'm photographing a pile of rubbish in Brooklyn, or a supermodel in a studio. The same aesthetic, formal characteristics, accents and curiosity have permeated my photos since the start.
Taking a photo is forming an opinion, and how it is done—its melody and rhythm—becomes recognizable in time, regardless of the photo's subject.
I don't really like to talk about my pictures, but if I needed to choose three words to characterize them, I would choose pure, sentimental, and curious. I am usually considered a fashion photographer, that's the field I'm best known in, though very early on I started to make portraits, still lifes and fine-art series as well. In 2007 I photographed faces and palms in the subterranean towns of homeless people in Budapest, and in 2009 I visited large prisons for a series of portraits of murderers. I haven't completed that series, it's still lying in my drawer. For two years I have been working on a story about my father, his growing old, my childhood, and above all, my search for identity. I can't really seem to find my place in the world, I feel like a tourist everywhere, whether in Hungary, Europe or America.
New York is the centre of the world. It has a vast arts arena, and it is accordingly only about money and careers, and human relationships are superficial, are mostly driven by interests. Of course, it would be hypocritical to harp on the negative things, because New York is brilliant in a sense, because no one cares who you are and where you come from, and they are without prejudice. What matters is what new things you can contribute to the whole thing.
I've been living in New York for nine years, and I'm grateful to the city for the great many things I've learnt, especially about myself. Robert Frank, who was born in Switzerland and emigrated to the United States after Word War II, once said that a black man on the Paris metro would be called an African, in New York an American. There is no other place in the world that would be so democratic. At the same time, the differences that exist between its mentality and that of Europe constitute an unbridgeable gap for a visitor from the latter culture. Unless you're socialized there, you can only accept, but never understand, that mentality and attitude. I always break up when friends who have been living in America for five or ten years claim to be Americans. According to Charles Darwin, the species to survive everything won't be the strongest or the smartest, but the one instead that adapts itself best to changes. How you get along in the US hinges in part on your ability to look like one of them when you're in fact not. Mirjam Donáth wrote in the first issue of Supernation: "New York may also serve the purpose of waking you up to what's important, because it saturates you with what isn't." Eleven years ago I met the wonder called Nelli, who is now my wife and with whom I want to have a family in a place that is truer and more romantic than America.
Say you have an imaginary album with the most important photos of your career in it. What would you add in the near future?
I'm moving more and more away from fashion, as I want to tell stories that are more profound and personal, want to spend more time with artistic and documentary work, have regular exhibitions, make books. The constant brawls that fashion is associated with are often a source of frustration for me when in comes to creative work. I hate the fact that most of my commercial works are valid only for a few weeks, or at best for a season. Avedon or Irving Penn, or Juergen Teller, Viviane Sassen and Collier Schorr, to name some contemporaries, were able to create something enduring both in fashion and contemporary art. That's my goal too.
The photo I want to work on in the future will be, more than ever, a solitary enterprise. Photography is magic. What I can pin a name on in it will not really captivate me. My dream is to find more of myself by means of photography, and not to be identified by others because of my images.