Moving to America in her mid-twenties after having lived under the oppressive spectre of communism and its wake as well as with the limitations that come with small towns, Marie Tomanova sees a positive future in the spirited youth she encounters in New York City.
As a Czech immigrant struggling in a new environment to belong, to come to terms with her repressive past and her uncertain future, Marie explores issues of displacement, identity, inclusivity, gender, and sexuality through photography and video in her current two main projects: Self-portraits, in which she addresses the issue of displacement and finding place in the American landscape; and Young American, in which individuality is valued as uniqueness and not judged as a lack of sameness.
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Marie, after your debut solo exhibition, Young American, at the Czech Center New York, opening last March, you launched your first monograph under the same name, Young American. Through a series of portraits shot in New York City, your book celebrates an idea of an America still rife with dreams and possibilities, hope and freedom. For how long have you been capturing and collecting the photographs we can find in Young American? How much has the cultural panorama changed since you first started?
I started to photograph people in 2014. At that time, I only had a digital camera and I was still searching for my ‘look’. It was a beautiful and experimental phase. There are a few photographs from that time included in the video piece So Far From Mikulov, which was the dominant artwork in the solo exhibition Young American last summer at the Czech Center New York. I got my film camera at the beginning of 2016 and I fell in love with analogue. The photographs in the Young American book are essentially an edit of the most favourite ones from the exhibition and most of them are the ones that were shot on film between 2016 and 2018.
Born in the Czech Republic, you moved to the West Coast at the age of 26 on the hunt for your own American Dream. As an immigrant struggling to fit in a new environment and with an uncertain future, how much has this influenced your work? And how did you handle this situation while trying to break into the art world?
Moving to the United States was the biggest decision of my life. I didn’t really think about it that way at the time: I was 26, just finished my MFA as a painter, felt utterly unsuccessful as an artist and didn’t see many options on how to make an artist career happen in the Czech Republic. I was bartending for $1.50 an hour, partying and drinking like everybody else in my circle of friends, and life was slipping by pretty quickly with no direction. I had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life.
I had a boyfriend at the time, and I was thinking that I would be back in half a year with some money earned in America. Then, we would get married, live in the suburbs, have kids, and I’d work as a window stylist in H&M if they considered that I had enough talent for that. That was the top of my dreams when I was leaving for America.
How did the United States change that dream?
A whole new world opened to me and I felt like in wonderland for many years, discovering all the opportunities and new dreams. And then, bigger dreams, and dreams that I would’ve never even dared to dream of. It was – and still is – a wonderful journey of self-growth, finding my passions and talents and self-confidence. It is the biggest adventure of my life.
Photography was a wonderful mirror to see myself in within the American landscape, and by seeing myself in the new environment, I felt that I belonged. There were many years with ups and downs, feelings of alienation and cultural differences. And it all shows in my work, even now, when I’m taking photographs back in the Czech Republic. Strangely enough, going back home after eight years, I realized that I feel like a stranger in my hometown and I belong with my whole heart to New York City. It all switched. So now, I am taking photos in Czech to examine how I feel about that.
What’s in photography that made you pursue this career?
I left the Czech Republic feeling like a failed painter, so I spent an entire year in North Carolina writing journals. I didn’t want to paint anymore, and I was in search of something else. I wasn’t sure about what that was until I saw Francesca Woodman’s show at the Guggenheim museum in 2012 during my second week after moving to New York. It was a transformative moment. I loved her work but the journal excerpts that were part of that show especially moved me. It inspired me to pick up a camera and sign up for the evening beginner photography classes at the School of Visual Arts.
I was getting positive feedback on my work during the evaluations in class and it encouraged me to shoot more and more. Self-portraiture became a tool to express my fears, doubts, feelings and it helped me to see myself in the new environment. Photography became my new passion and it had everything that I was lacking in painting: the images reflect reality, they are instant and immediate, there is a certain degree of truth and honesty that comes through photography in a more raw way than through painting, and there is the connection with the subject, which is very important for me. It’s a whole different approach to work and it suits me very well.
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I’ve read that you learned to photograph by shooting your own nude body in the style of Francesca Woodman. “My ongoing photo and performance-based self-portraiture series deals with issues of displacement, identity, inclusivity, gender, and sexuality as I explore the psychological and physical idea of where I fit. The work is about the process of seeing myself as a part of the American landscape…”, you wrote. How does the process of shooting these images compare to capturing such a diversity of young people?
The process of shooting is very different. When I worked on self-portraits, I have full control over the process from beginning to the end, which I enjoyed, especially at the beginning of my photographic practice. It is work in solitude and feels almost meditative. When I started to photograph other people, the process became more unpredictable. It challenges me to stay flexible in the way I approach each person and to stay open to new situations and scenarios. It is essential for me to create a connection with the person in front of the camera.
“They are party people, fashion people, club kids, and art kids. Fluid, sassy and sometimes gritty”, wrote Ryan McGinley in the introduction of Young American. How did you connect with such a wide variety of young New Yorkers? Especially, how did you establish the honest and emotional connection we perceive when looking at your pictures? 
I love walking through crowds of people in New York and spotting who I think would be photographed well. Scouting people is something I really enjoy. They are people who catch my attention for different reasons – their style of walking, the hair, the clothes or simply just their eyes and face. They are people who inspire me and people who I relate to. They are people that I want to connect with and create friendships through the camera, people that I love and want to have around me as my new American family. They are people I feel connected to and it shows in the images.
The body of your work not only is a celebration of bodily diversity on narrow societal beauty standards, but it certainly also is empowerment towards the spirited youth. What do you find so mesmerizing about them?
I am a people’s person and I very much enjoy being in the company of people. It really makes me happy. And of course, there are certain people that I vibe with more than with others. Coming to New York City and not knowing anybody was hard on me, and I was too shy to just talk to strangers, so it wasn’t easy for me to connect with people at first. Photography became a precious tool to meet the people I felt I would vibe with. And we would get together, talk, take pictures and talk some more. It is amazing and fascinating how many different life stories there are. And they all matter. They are all important and I feel deeply inspired by them.
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Young American is perfectly contextualized in the current cultural zeitgeist. It welcomes disintegration of any sort of set idea about identity. It gives power to the voice of youth culture in the process of a much-needed ideological revolution. What was it that sparked the whole concept behind this series?
This whole series came about very naturally. I was doing my self-portrait work in nature, which was about me seeing myself and fitting into the American landscape. During the same period, I was shooting all of these photos of people. As I edited them, these just sort of fit together as a portrait of America and became the basis for the show and then the book.
I found highly appealing the optimistic view that Young American offers. It asserts the hope for a better future. “Young American gives viewers a break from the intense negativity of mainstream media.”, writer Lexi Manatakis acknowledged in Dazed. How do you want to inspire the people with your message?
I would like to contribute to creating a space in this world that feels supportive and open for being who you want to be. I would like to send a message that there is way more than just the outdated (and dangerous) idea of ‘classic beauty’. I believe that happiness and beauty come from within and one has to be happy with oneself. It really makes your life so much easier and beautiful when you find out who you want to be and can embrace it. But it usually isn’t the beauty standard that this society offers, and I would like to support the message that there is love for everybody.
I just had two major solo shows, one in the Czech Republic, and day after that, another one in Berlin. It was very interesting to see the very different reactions on a similar body of work in two different countries. In Czech, lots of young women came to me and felt inspired and empowered to be female photographers, to be queer, to be themselves, to continue to strive and not give up in the still very male-dominated and sexist Czech society. For them, it was inspiring to see that I left my small hometown and made it a big city on the other side of the world.
What about Berlin?
In Berlin, the crowd related to the idea of feeling alienated in a new country, feeling displaced and trying to find your place in a new society. Because almost all the people I talked to in Berlin were from somewhere else. It was like a small New York. Everybody came from different parts of the world and they were chasing their dreams, looking for their communities and subcultures, finding their identity in the city. It was very powerful and I was struck by the difference. Berlin felt very different from Czech in many ways. Czech society is not diverse, not very inclusive towards immigrants or other cultures. People usually live in the town they were born or close by, and the whole country and nation feels very small. I was very excited to bring Young American there and challenge that.
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Do you feel American now?
No, I don’t. But maybe. I certainly feel like a New Yorker. It has been many years of struggling and really feeling the oppression of being an immigrant, and so I still feel I am in a very vulnerable position.
Your work has been compared to the one of Corrine Day, Nan Goldin, Ren Hang, Richard Kern, etc. What are some contemporary artists, not only photographers, that inspire you in your oeuvre?
I love Juergen Teller, especially his books that I keep looking at as the next inspiration for the second book I want to do. I love Wolfgang Tillmans. I love Harley Weir’s and Sandy Kim’s work. I love John Yuyi and her ideas, which she translates into art and they constantly inspire me. I love Emma Kohlmann’s and Tschabalala Self’s paintings. I love Lotta Volkova’s styling. I love Pixy Liao’s photographs of her relationship. I love Martine Gutierez’s videos, performances and photos. I love Jaimie Warren’s performances and the last one I saw made me laugh so hard that I owe her a huge hug and thank you. And there are so many fashion designers who inspire me, like Menyelek and Gogo Graham, to name the dearest ones.
We’ve seen your work on Dazed, i-D, Purple Magazine, AnOther, Interview, and Numéro among others. With your Young American launch, “It really is American dream coming full circle!”, you wrote. Three weeks after your book launch, you debuted in Europe with two big solo shows, the first in Berlin at EEP Gallery and then at AFO Olomouc in the Czech Republic. What’s your next dream?
I have so many dreams! (Laughs) I am working on another big solo show, which will be in Prague, at the Pragovka Gallery, opening on October 22. I really like how one can work with space and installation, exhibitions are a very important part of how to show my work. I am also starting to work on a second book, which will include also the newest work shot in the Czech Republic. And I have a few big things up in the air that I can’t talk about yet. So all very, very exciting!
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