In leopard-print pants and a satin bra, Barbara Palvin shows the way home
After more than 15 years, Zoltán Tombor, the best-known Hungarian fashion photographer, and his wife, Nelli Tombor, are moving home, which prompted the theme of the latest issue of Supernation, the annual publication he first released in 2015, and which was now subtitled Homeward. "The series, Homeward, is a recollection of my childhood, a form of daydreaming, visual meditation. It is about that bittersweet yet untroubled period at the end of the 1970s, the last moments of a socialist regime on the decline, few remnants of which have survived in reality, or in my mind. I didn't mean to be overly serious with this series, I reproduced a world I remembered."
It's probably fair to wonder why they decided, after so much time, to return to Hungary, which is going against the current trend. "We spent almost nine years in New York, we've had enough, have become saturated. Homesickness is a rare phenomenon because it combines sensation and emotion. Our childhood has a lot to do with it, as do our bonds with our parents and siblings, our friends and a lot of things you cannot communicate in words, because you need to see and hear them, feel and taste them, to be able to sense them. Coming home is a source of security and relief, and we received a lot of love in recent weeks. I feel at home both in Milan and New York, in the sense that I know what moves them and how they work, having spent a lot of time in both, having learnt the languages and fitted in the cultures. At the same time, for me, home can only be where I grew up and socialised, where I can use my mother tongue. Italian culture is European, and I feel closer to it than the American, though you could say both places have become home to some extent," says Zoltán Tombor.
Of course, the photographer does not want to discourage anyone from trying their luck abroad—far from it. "There is a long and hard road ahead for anyone willing to give up the security of their home, but the experiences and knowledge that can be gained abroad could not be had in Hungary, whether professionally or in terms of self-knowledge."
He too returns as a different man. "With the experience of sixteen years abroad and the attendant wrinkles, I'll continue with what I left here in 2003, at age 30. Budapest now seems a completely different city—separately, we have both changed a great deal over the past fifteen years. Moving from Budapest to Milan is as big a leap as it is moving from there to New York. America is far away, in every sense of the word, and will always remain a rigid and alien place for me."
Some of the photos were taken in Budapest, the other part of the series was made in Érd, even though most of Zoltán Tombor's childhood memories are associated with Zánka, where he spent weekends and summers with his family. The memories need not be sharply defined moments or events, may live on in us as impressions and moods. "This period somehow appears to me in Kodachrome-hued scenes, with fishing and the sour smell of the bait, melon and my sticky arms, watching a mosquito bite me before I squash it, my mother's care and unconditional love. If I were to select a single photo to represent the essence of my childhood, it would be the three colourful light switches with the Tuto padlock. That image has a lot in it of the awkwardness and slightly inane colourfulness I was surrounded by as I grew up." Since Zoltán Tombor grew up in the 1970s, the aesthetics of socialism is very pronounced in this series. "At the time, it meant safety and unrestrained happiness, today I remember a world that was difficult to understand, was depressing and constantly struggling with complexes."
He chose Barbara Palvin, who is a friend, because he thought she would understand this milieu as someone with identical roots. "It's exciting to show an internationally famous bombshell in a way she has never been seen before."
Tulián Aczél, the other character in the series, was introduced to him by a friend who works in casting. There was a third young Hungarian who made a contribution: Luca Nyáry. Krisztián Nyáry's daughter was recommended to Zoltán Tombor by Zalán Péter Salát, the other originator of Supernation, who knew her writings. "I simply asked her to spend a few days with the series, write down what came to mind. Above all, I was interested in seeing what a teenager today thinks when she sees images of my memories. Since the character Barbara enacts is roughly the same age as Luca, the text can be understood as her monologue, which adds validity to the story."
Zoltán Tombor's models have included international celebrities like Sophie Marceau and Alicia Keys, and had he followed his childhood dreams, he would now be standing on the other side of the camera. "When I was small, I wanted to be an actor or a singer, because I was greatly attracted by the stage and performing in public. I would rehearse before the mirror, picture myself in scenes, dress up and imitate my favourites. The comedian in me is still alive, and I'm certain I will let it out into the light some day. I became interested in photography at age 13; I liked being in charge, being listened to. Then, after a few years of amateur stuff, I began to discover the possibilities inherent in the aesthetic of the medium. It was only later, as an adult, that I became intrigued by photography as a deeper intellectual effort. What really interests and captivates me in photography is that which I cannot name, which my words can only dance around, but cannot define."
Though he is best known for his fashion photography, Zoltán Tombor is also active in other genres (e.g. still life, landscape), and claims to be attracted to each for a different reason. In any case, he is not keen on categorizing his works as "labels are always based on stereotypes, and are misleading," which is not to say the purpose is unimportant, because it does determine a lot of things. He says while applied photography limits the possibilities of free creation, using similar lighting, camera technique, settings and postproduction lends his personal projects the same recognizable personal touch. "In time, most artists develop their signature or ‘voice', which is greatly influenced by the chosen subject and the artist's interests."
And as for inspiration, he tends to draw on external sources more in the case of commissioned jobs. "In those of my works that aim to tell a story or give free rein to self-expression, it is more important to leave questions open so that the meaning and context of the photo can be formulated by the viewer in a dialogue with the image. Simply put, photography is perhaps this: I have a feeling, and here's a metaphor for it. A photo cannot communicate specific facts, but is good at referring to other things, and in this sense it stands closer to poetry than to short fiction."
And as is the case with poems and short stories, photos can sometimes be better received, appreciated, in an analogue form than in the digital space. "I have been collecting photos, books and other publications on photography for a long time. Our relationship to photography has completely transformed over the past fifteen to twenty years, as we now look at them, thanks the digital revolution, almost exclusively on displays. I find prints essential because they are tangible and provide the viewer with a far more human and complex experience. We had long planned to publish our own periodical when in 2014 we started designing the first issue of Supernation, which we presented in the autumn of 2015."
Naturally, Zoltán Tombor also has an Instragram page, but thinks that the visual overload that social media has generated has its dark side. And it's not that there are more non-professional, self-proclaimed photographers. "Our brains can no longer process and store the plethora of useless information. Our visual digestion is badly strained, whereas it takes time and attention to read photographs. On the other hand, social media allows us to enjoy the work of a great many artists we could not meet in any other way, and the endless and always accessible archive of the internet is also very helpful when researching for ideas."