Zoltán Tombor: "I find the superficiality and mixed company of the fashion circus more and more off-putting"
Zoltán Tombor returns to Hungary after more than fifteen years. The Hungarian photographer, who has lived in New York in recent years, presented Homeward, his exhibition at Société, in December. One of its characters is Barbara Palvin, some of whose childhood photos were also included in the series that straddles fashion and documentary. In 2003 Zoltán Tombor moved to Milan, and then, in 2011, he and his wife, Nelli Tombor, made their home in New York. They are moving back to Hungary this year. In addition to photographing Hungarian celebrities, Tombor also worked for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Time, as well as for brands like La Perla, DKNY, and Revlon. An interview.
How do you become a photographer for Vogue? How much jockeying for position does it take for a photographer to be discovered?
I'm often asked this by young photographers, but I don't have the formula. Everyone needs to find their own way to success—there is no one single solution. I started to do photography seriously in 1995, and the moment fifteen years later when I was offered a chance at Vogue Italia, had been preceded by long years of hard work and sustained efforts, self-sacrifice and important decisions. I think the international success of an artist today is as much a question of marketing and networking as of talent. Young talents may have been discovered fifty years ago, but it's no longer part of the practice. The leading agencies and artist managers look for and contract artists who have not only great potential but also considerable professional success under their belt, as well as a fully developed vision and visual idiom. I owe my success to date to persistent and focused efforts—I'm not lucky, nor do I have special abilities.
Is an agent or agency essential for this? Do you still have an agent?
That depends on the artist. There are photographers who don't need artist management, but good representation gives you security and convenience in your day-to-day life. That only applies of course if you are already well connected in the field. A good agent can be vital if you make your debut in a new market, because they can shorten the time before you reach the desired opportunities. I terminated my contract with my American agency last year. I am helped by a New York producer in the organization of overseas jobs, while elsewhere I am managed by Darling Creative, a London-based firm.
How does the relationship of a photographer and a magazine work?
How a magazine is structured has changed a lot, with corporate interests overriding old routines. Most magazines these days have their own fashion editor or cooperate with a freelance stylist, and the editorial team chooses the photographer. It is of course also important that a photographer have well-established links to a magazine. I am usually suggested by the stylist, and then the magazine's producer contacts my agent. In my experience, once there's a case of successful cooperation, further collaboration becomes easier, and you can start bringing your own ideas.
What makes you the photographer of choice for a magazine or a brand? What's different in what you can offer?
What matters is the photographer's world, but that doesn't simply translate into visuality. What is more important is the message of the whole of my work, the personal magnetism—the thing only I can relate visually in a certain manner. I would rather have a Schiele on my wall than a Klimt, but that has nothing to do with a rank or recognition, and is instead motivated by an attraction to a certain aesthetic or way of thinking. What I provide may not be more, whereas it may be different.
How can you stand out, now when complete campaigns are made with an iPhone?
What matters to me is who makes a photo and with what intention; the technique is irrelevant as far as quality is concerned. An artist should choose the apparatus and format that best serves the visual solution of a given problem or idea. It's like assuming the poem you write on a tablet can't be as good as one written with a fountain pen. The priority for me is to make photographs and have fun; standing out of the crowd is more the result of diligence and persistence.
When shooting for a campaign, do you insist on a team you have come to know? Do you even have a say in who you work with?
Every job is different. Working in applied photography is a bit like being a session musician: who you work with on a record or at a concert changes with every project. Of course, I do have a list of favourite professionals in London, Paris and New York, but I'm also open to establishing new connections with the agencies whose artists I came to like. Naturally, I like to work with a stylist, hair stylist and makeup artist I have had good experiences with, or who have a convincing portfolio. Manner is important in fashion, efficient work by highly qualified contributors is key to a high-quality fashion photograph.
Is the image that appears in the magazine 100 per cent what you send in, or do they make demands?
I usually send one, perhaps two image versions for every page planned, and that's how we choose the photos that will go through post-production. On occasion, I may get a suggestion from the magazine's designer for some closer framing or for swapping the images of a pair of pages, but that always takes place before the retouching, so I can't be surprised at the time of release.
Do they ever make modifications subsequently?
I can't think of a case in recent memory. The odd image may be left out, because the number of pages may have changed due to the advertisers, but even that's a rare-case scenario.
Generally speaking, does a photographer make enough with the commissions to go on and spend months on their own projects?
Like most artists, I finance my artistic projects with my commercial work. Fine-art projects have very different budgets: you probably need more money if you want to take photos in Mongolia than if you shoot cigarette butts in you studio. The quality of applied jobs is closely related to that of the fine-art assignments, thanks to the person of the artist, each reinforcing the other. If you can produce images that are easy to sell, you'll have the financial means to create more freely.
With some exaggeration, Barbara Palvin is photographed three times a day. How can you photograph her to ensure she looks special, different?
I cannot tell what makes Barbara look special, it's different for every viewer. My mother finds different things beautiful than I do, and generations in general tend to hold very different aesthetic opinions. What's perhaps more interesting is how to make Barbara look different from what we have come to expect, and to what extent that still remains authentic. My series, Homeward, was meant to explore that, among other things.
Must fashion photographers follow current trends at all costs? Or is ignoring them the very thing that can make one good?
Chameleon types can be as successful as photographers who follow similar aesthetics and styles throughout their careers. My images changed a lot over the past twenty years, which has more to do with how my inner self keeps changing. I don't consider myself a follower of trends; my photos are the result of visceral decisions, and are not determined by the dominant trend or marketing objectives. I find it difficult to believe an artist who is overly adaptable.
What is it in photography that interests you most these days? Do you still think your future lies in fashion photography?
Recently I've spent more time on non-commissioned work, whose themes I chose. I find the superficiality and mixed company of the fashion circus more and more off-putting; our profession has also been greatly changed by corporate interests. I want to slow down a bit, travel less, and yet see more of the world. I am working on a series that mixes portraits of my father, taken in his home in Köveskál, and images from the family archive. It may be ready to be shown at an exhibition in late 2020. We also have ideas for two Hungarian books, and will start preparing for them in the days to come. It's exciting to be back home.