Gregor Törzs has been fascinated with nature and adventure ever since he was a little kid growing up in Hamburg (Germany). And it’s this sense of melancholy, or nostalgia, that he tries to make people feel when they look at his work. After living in Los Angeles and working in the commercial worlds of fashion and advertising, he felt that something was missing. He uprooted again and headed to Berlin, its creative hub was beckoning him. Here, he developed his own styles and methods of photography and printing, and continues to experiment with new processes even today. We had a chat with him to discover his unique artistic approach and try to see the world through his lens.
So Gregor, at nineteen, you left your hometown of Hamburg to move to Los Angeles. What was it that brought you back to Europe and to where you are now, Berlin?
When I moved to Berlin, in around 2007, the city was still changing on a daily basis like no other Western city in the world. And it still is. It’s so inspiring and is a perfect home and base for me. After a somewhat prosperous time in Los Angeles, I still had the feeling that I wasn’t living up to my true potential, as I was always the creative thinker for somebody else’s product. It was a fantastic journey, and I am deeply thankful for every second of it. But when I hit my mid-thirties, I felt that the achieved comfort I worked so very hard for was actually holding me back from developing into the person I am today. So I moved to Berlin, and started from scratch.
Boy on Safari was a pivotal point in your life, as it propelled you from your commercially focussed photography career into the art world. As I understand it, that project was completely created using Dioramas. I honestly had no idea until I did my research! Do you have a real interest in reality and appearance?
I truly believe in the old design rule: form follows function. I strive to portray the emotion that’s best described as the feeling you have when remembering something. When you think of the most beautiful thing that ever happened to you, it carries this sweet melancholic feeling. That is my function, and everything I photograph and how I print it, follows as its form.
With Boy on Safari, I found my white and my black, also my light and my dark – and I found that emotional space I was telling you about. Oddly enough, some of the most inspiring feedback I’ve ever received was from a neighbour who happened to be a drug-addict. He was in a rough place in his life, and sometimes asked to borrow cash. One day, he was standing in my studio looking at my work and said, “man, those photographs feel like they’ve always been around.” I don’t think he put much thought into his observation… but the moment he left my studio, my eyes were flooded with tears. He nailed it. I knew what he felt, and today I’d describe it as a nostalgic view into the future. 
You really do make a lot of work for yourself, choosing the most complicated way to get your results, and I’m particularly intrigued by your printing method. From start to finish, could you briefly describe how it works?
I print platinum because it’s the best and the easiest way to tell my story. I used to work with printers who printed silver gelatine for me, and that was a pain. Either they quit on me or they doubled their prices. So, for me, mastering the platinum process was a natural step that I had to take in order to continue the journey.
It is the oldest printing process and is fairly simple. Liquid platinum and palladium salts are mixed with ferric oxalate and then hand-coated on paper. When dry, the emulsion turns photo reactive and can be exposed by placing the film negative onto the coated paper. Expose, develop, clear, water it and you’re done. It’s simple… if you’re happy with that print. If for some reason you want to control the outcome of the print, all hell breaks loose. That’s where platinum printing becomes really tricky, expensive, and a real master craft. I love it and it makes my life ‘easier’, since I don’t have to explain myself to a printer. But it takes time to really make it your own.
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The choice of Japanese paper for your prints completely transforms the images. It creates a more painterly effect, and the texture adds further depth. I’ve never seen this done before, how did you come across this idea?
Honestly, trial and error. The difference between you and a professional printer is that you have the time to experiment until the sun comes up. Printers don’t have the time and money to develop something truly unique. They usually master one or a couple of methods to a very high standard, and that either fits your photography or it doesn’t. I researched paper for at least four to five years; all brands, kinds and origins. I ended up with a selection of Japanese papers. When I print on them, I can see what I felt when I took the photograph. This is another reason why I fell in love with platinum printing: you can coat any paper and expose it. It doesn’t always mean it’ll work, but it’s always worth a try.
You focus almost all of your work around nature, whether that’s underwater or aboveground. One of your projects was called Fragile Worlds; by using this title, were you commenting upon the state of the natural world and its diminishing ecosystem?
Very much so. It’s such a privilege to be part of this fantastic world that does not need us! Nothing out there is depending on our species. If we would cease to exist today, no tree, no fish, no bird, absolutely nothing would miss us. It’s crazy, but we do not have any real value on this planet other than amongst ourselves. It bothers me that everybody has an opinion about climate change and who or what causes it. I say: who frigging cares! If your friend comes to you and he or she is hurting, we don’t ask stupid questions to justify their means, we just do whatever is within our power, with all our love and might, to help them get better. You cannot negotiate with nature. That friendship is a privilege, and a fragile one indeed.
I read somewhere that your interest in nature began when you were young and held a leaf up to the sun, which illuminated its tiny details. Do you try and recreate this today by continuing to use the sun as your light source?
When I was a kid, discovering these illuminated details was more about finding my place as an explorer. In those early years, you make decisions purely based on your character rather than being reflected through an acquired intellectual process. Like Joseph Beuys once said, “By the time I was five, I knew everything”. Noticing something lying on the ground is one thing, but picking it up and pushing your natural curiosity to the next step? What comes next defines your true character.
In this case, my instinct was to turn around and hold the leaf towards the sun. By doing that, not only did I try to understand more about my find, but also I removed myself from the centre of the equation. The object becomes your hero, and you’re the admirer of the moment. Then you just have to open your sails and collect whatever falls your way. With a little luck, you may even collect something that’s more magical than what you’d have gotten by staying in that moment. I find myself applying this instinct to all of my photography, and I hope my ego will never play a part in my pictures.
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As you’ve spent the majority of your career focussing on black and white analogue photography, it must’ve been difficult to move into the realms of colour. Will you now continue to take it further in all aspects of your work, or is it saved only for subjects deemed colourful enough?
That’s a great question. But I honestly don’t know. Being such a black and white nerd, I’d never even thought about getting into colour photography. In my case, colour found me. One day, I saw something that said to me, ‘Hi! I can only be told in colour’. It was a cicada wing at Deyrolle, in Paris. I had an exhibition there, (of course, all black and white platinum prints.) For some reason, that time, when I looked at new specimens, my black and white mental viewing filter failed me somehow. Colour was prying itself into my view, and I could only say thanks for that. I didn’t see it coming, and now it’s part of my photography. Do I know what colour comes next? No. But I feel that my creative state of mind is improving.
After watching a behind the scenes video of you photographing your underwater images, I thought wow, he must be a keen diver! Where in the world has your underwater photography taken you to, and do you always look for shallow reefs because of the natural light?
I love using the sun as my light source, and try to use it as much as I can. All of my underwater photography is shot with natural light. And since the natural light and contrast dissipates quite quickly when going deep, I’ve spent hundreds of hours improving my shallow diving technique. It might sound weird, but mastering your perfect buoyancy is easier in the deep when you’re more compressed by water pressure.
As any diver diving on air (not using a rebreather), I use my lungs to control my micro movements. Fully loaded and with a huge camera in my hands, it can be quiet challenging to adjust your shooting angle by a centimetre by just controlling your breathing and lung volume. I’ve been diving for thirty years now, but all my photography so far has been in the Red Sea, as it’s perfect for my work. Corals grow all the way up to the surface, and you have all the fish you can wish for.
Something really exciting is the camera you made, the Ultramarine. If I’m right, this is the first underwater large format analogue camera in the world. Again, you’re making a lot more work for yourself. What is it that adds an unusual quality to the images that a digital camera just can’t capture?
The Ultramarine is not the first large format underwater camera, but I believe it exposes the largest negative. It shoots 24 x 36cm. It was quite an endeavour to create this camera, it took around two years to design and build it. After so many years of diving photography, I’d felt that there was this particular feeling down there at the bottom of sea that I hadn’t quite captured yet. A magic, almost. So we built this camera, not necessarily for it’s high resolution, but for it’s optical physics and thus shooting characteristics.
Most of the time, modern underwater photography uses a dome port when shooting with a wide-angle lens. Using a dome port has many advantages, but it also introduces what is known as ‘the virtual image’. You don’t see it, but the camera does, and this virtual image is being re-photographed by your camera inside the housing. It has a compressed and very flat depth of field. As a result, all (even mega high-resolution) underwater photography carries its focus from very close to infinity. I find it lacks sensuality. Not to get too nerdy and techy… but my camera uses a 155mm lens at a super wide angle, with an extreme shallow depth of field. One that even that virtual image can’t flatten out. But if I had not been a platinum printer, needing that analogue negative, I would not have built the camera. I love that large format three-dimensional feel in combination with the platinum print.
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I’m intrigued by the inspiration and influences in your work. If you could invite five creative people over for dinner, who would they be?
These kinds of questions are so tough and often so over contemplated. Today, I’d very quickly choose Wes Anderson, Sarah Moon, Karl Lagerfeld, Kate Blanchet and Sir Paul McCartney.
…and what would you cook?
Today, we have the farmers market outside the door, so I would slow cook one lamb and one vegetable tagine as well as make homemade bread, cous cous and mint yoghurt. And for dessert? A berry crumble. Oh and of course, some fresh mint tea. But hey, since it’s a fantasy, why not set up a few bottles of 2005 Chateau Margaux. I love simple dishes made with good quality ingredients and plenty of time.
Finally, what exciting new projects do you have coming up, and do you have any more dives scheduled soon?
I stopped talking about projects that are not ready yet or are in the making. I would rather show you when I have something to show for. But as far as diving goes, actually I will be leaving for a dive trip in a few days…
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