Glass talks to Maria Kublin about her father – the highly influential fashion photographer Tom Kublin


Glass talks to Maria Kublin about her father, the highly influential fashion photographer Tom Kublin, about his life fleeing from war, finding love and contributing to the future of photography

NEITHER of us can find the café where we had agreed to meet – we speak on the phone, frantically trying to find each other. After a few seconds of back and forth, I look up to see Maria Kublin waving at me. She is everything you would expect from the daughter of a famous fashion photographer and model – glamorous and impeccably dressed.

Once we have sat down, Maria Kublin tells me that talking about her father is “quite emotional because I never knew him”. He died in 1966, before she was born. Everything she knows has been passed on by her mother and grandmother. Tom Kublin worked for designers Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, and was a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1960s.

Shooting for all the best designers, Kublin had a successful career and an extraordinary life. However, it did not start this way. Born in a small town in Hungary in 1924, Kublin had a fairly normal childhood. He and his brother Jean were raised by his mother after his father passed away unexpectedly at the age of 42. His father had worked for the Esterházys, a Hungarian aristocratic family, but the Kublins themselves were just a middle-class, hardworking family.

Kublin didn’t like school – he wasn’t an academic, all he wanted to do was work with his hands. Maria comments on her grandmother’s surprise at Kublin’s early interest in photography (he set up a darkroom at just 13), putting it down to the young photographer’s creative mind: “He had a vision and that was it”.


Photograph of Thomas Kublin. Courtesy of Maria Kublin


Tom Kublin was persistent in his love for photography, insisting it was where his future lay. Any parent can’t help but feel a certain desire to see their child go into a stable career, and Ilona (Kublin’s mother) hoped he would follow a career in law or medicine. The unpredictability of creative careers such as photography and painting was a worrying prospect, particularly following the wave of economic uncertainty created by the First World War.

However, Kublin reassured his family that he was serious about this path and would pursue it passionately. At this point Ilona realised it wasn’t “a crazy little idea”, as Maria puts it, and decided to support his choice.


Wedding dress, Summer collection 1967, Balenciaga. Photograph: Tom Kublin.
Courtesy of Maria Kublin

At 15 Kublin went to the Budapest School of Photography and won several prizes. This was swiftly followed by the outbreak of the Second World War, when he got a job taking photos of the devastating effects of the war on Budapest. After the liberation, an American journalist, who had seen and admired his work on the ruins of Budapest, took him through Hungary, Austria and Poland for a report on the various religions practised in Europe, finishing in Zurich.

Tumultuous times in November 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary following the Hungarian Revolution, caused Kublin to flee back to Zurich. Kublin opened his own studio there and used it as a base to travel and work in New York and France.

It was during one fateful trip to Paris that he met Jacques Fath, the French fashion designer who massively influenced post-war haute couture, and contemporary and friend of Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. He photographed a special show of Jacques Fath’s clothes in St. Moritz. According to Maria, this was it. Kublin had found his passion – and by accident.


Photograph of muse Katinka. Photograph Tom Kublin. Courtesy of Maria Kublin


We both ponder how one goes from very serious sombre work documenting war-torn Europe to taking glamorous fashion photographs for Yves Saint Laurent. Maria muses, “Sometimes in life things just go in a direction that you don’t anticipate … maybe he saw the destruction of the wars and wanted to create something more beautiful?” Her father was always looking for the beauty in life and was always seeking to capture an ideal, a romanticised version of things. And of course, she adds, the beautiful women helped.

One of these beautiful women was Maria’s mother, the model Katinka Bleeker.

“My mother was very adventurous and therefore has had a very interesting life.” Maria tells me. At the age of 17 Bleeker left Amsterdam – where she was born in 1939 –  and went to Paris to work as a model. After having lived in Las Vegas and LA, she went to New York where she became a model for Eileen Ford and stayed at the famous Barbizon hotel for “girls from good families. Jackie Kennedy being one of the guests.

“With my father she lived in Switzerland. After he passed away we lived in Milan and Paris before we moved to Amsterdam, where she became the first fashion stylist of the Netherlands. My mother was Miss Holland in 1960 too.”


Portrait of muse Katinka. Photograph: Tom Kublin. Courtesy of Maria Kublin


Maria sets the scene: The Pierre hotel, New York. It was love at first sight for her mother. She told Maria she was ready to “walk away with him” right there and then. Kublin was less readable – he looked through her modelling portfolio and told her he’d be in touch. After not hearing from him for seven months she had given up, but then he asked her to model for him. She loved working with him and became his muse when they started dating.

She was not the only one who enjoyed working with him. During the 1950s and ‘60s Kublin worked with Balenciaga, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Chanel, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He was so well liked by Balenciaga that he was admitted into his inner circle – a great feat as Balenciaga was notoriously private. Kublin was close to Yves Saint Laurent too. He shot a short film of Yves Saint Laurent sketching and was even given five sketches to keep, which Maria now has.

She explains how she’s been to the Balenciaga archives and seen her father’s work first-hand and how she noticed many photos from the early ‘60s campaigns were shot by Kublin.

As well as models and designers, Kublin also worked closely with other photographers, and after he set up a studio in Rue St. Anne, Paris, the young Gian Paolo Barbieri came to work for him. As photography’s bright young thing, the Italian Barbieri was only just starting out on what would later be a hugely successful career. Barbieri worked for the likes of Valentino, Gianni Versace, Armani, Bulgari, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabbana and in 1968 the magazine Stern named him as one of the 14 best fashion photographers in the world. Before all this, however, he started out as Kublin’s assistant, and still credits the time he spent there as the beginning of his career.


Ensemble en Cloque Noir, D’Abraham. Coiffure D’Oranza Noir, 1963, Swiss National Museum. Photograph: Tom Kublin. Courtesy of Maria Kublin


Barbieri has said in the past that Kublin could be demanding to work with. Maria doesn’t deny this – her mother had said before that her father was very professional and he always wanted the best, for himself and for his client. He knew what he wanted and knew how to achieve it – he had a vision and, as a professional, he had to deliver it. Maria points out this misconception that people have of “creative people being dreamlike … you can have a dreamy vision maybe, but you have to deliver, you have to be on the dot and work.”

This is what her father was like, and he was respected and liked for it. Barbieri and Kublin had a good relationship – Barbieri still speaks fondly of his time in Paris with Kublin and when Maria contacted him regarding a possible biography of her father, he was more than happy to write an introduction. Their time together was short, only 20 days, as Tom Kublin passed away aged 42, just like his father had.

Maria has big plans for the future. Not only is she working towards a biography of her father, but also an exhibition of his works, and as an art historian and curator, who better to do so? In the past she has worked with clients such as Paul Smith when she curated an exhibition for the Amsterdam store in 2015. With her career in mind, I ask whether her father’s creativity has been passed down to her, and she says yes – she’s always looking and seeing things. “I always wanted to become a lawyer when I was younger, but I have to see something in order to learn,” and this realisation led her to decide to follow her heart and go into art history.

Tom Kublin has influenced not only his daughter, but the wider photography industry. He was one of the great photographers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and heavily involved in creative circles. Friends with artist Marc Chagall, iconic editor Diana Vreeland and designer Balenciaga, he was part of a group who made their mark on high society and made photographers famous in their own right. Maria credits his era with making photography “the serious art form” that it is today.


Portrait of muse Katinka. Photograph: Tom Kublin. Courtesy of Maria Kublin

In the light of this, it could be said that Tom Kublin and his work were a triumph, the theme of this issue. I put the question to Maria: how does triumph relate to her father? “Well, he became very successful”, she begins. “He got to work with the biggest names … just a little boy from Hungary,” and that is the real crux of Kublin’s triumph.

Yes, he worked for all the big fashion houses, all the major publications, he got the stamp of approval from Diana Vreeland and Alexey Brodovitch, but he did so after coming from obscurity, from his homemade darkroom when he was just 13 years old. You can imagine it now – a spare cupboard or outhouse at his family home, blacked-out windows and a young boy working on his dreams.

The doubts his family kept, and most likely, deep down, the doubts he had kept himself were quieted, no, obliterated by these successes. Photography before him had no status. Without him and his era, there would have been no room for the likes of Gian Paolo Barbieri to take centre stage. This young boy, Tom Kublin from Hungary, made it into Balenciaga’s inner circle and captured timeless images. From the destruction of the war to the glamorous ‘60s fashion shots, at the heart of it all was a boy’s desire to capture the beauty in the world.

I turn to Maria, wondering, does she have a favourite photograph of his? There are so many, it must be hard to pick just one. She nods and shows me a photo on her phone – it’s of her mother. Kublin managed to capture the beauty in his own, personal world as well as the wider one.

by Alicia Pountney

Taken from Decade – Glass issue 40

To make sure you never miss out on a copy of Glass, please visit here to subscribe

Glass and Glass Man are available in 25 countries, check out the website for our stockists