“In these faces is the young American I want to be” – Czech photographer Marie Tomanova talks us through her debut monograph, Young American, ahead of its launch at Los Angeles Art Book Fair
Capturing the ‘real’ America might sound like a challenge of epic proportions, but it came naturally to Marie Tomanova, whose debut monograph, Young American, sees the Czech Republic-born photographer train her lens on the country’s contemporary youth culture.
Prior to moving to the States at the age of 26, Tomanova’s view of America was informed by things like Coca-Cola, Levi’s and Hollywood, or bootlegged DVDs of Sex and The City, Pretty Woman and Dirty Dancing. “America represented the dream land for me, a place where generations before me emigrated to escape communist oppression, a place where you went to make it big, to reach your American dream,” she tells AnOther. “It was a dream of a place of exciting abundance and some place very, very far away.” Her perception was forever altered when she left the Czech Republic for North Carolina to work as an au pair, where she was confronted with the reality of today’s USA.
After relocating to New York City sometime later, and visiting Francesca Woodman’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2012, Tomanova got her start in image-making and “displacement, place, community, self, and memory” became the key themes in her work. She began to shoot self-portraits as a way of coping with feelings of uncertainty and displacement triggered by moving to a new city – and also by her urge to fit in within American society as a young Czech immigrant. “That self-portrait work was about me finding myself in the American landscape, actually seeing myself in it, to show myself that I belonged. And I was also shooting, shooting, shooting around NYC and for each group of edits I did for someone, there were a few pictures that didn’t fit in a way and those I felt were also the strongest, and affected me the most,” she says.
It’s from these edits that Young American was born. “As I began to pull these pictures together, I started then to shoot portraits for this project and I began to realise that they were strong because there was this real human connection there,” she explains. “And when I began talking about the work, I realised that it was often so much more about the connection with the person than the photo itself, for me.”
First shown in an exhibition at New York’s Czech Center last summer, Young American – which includes over 50 images and spans over three years of work – is vivid and sincere, imbued with a kind of optimism that is synonymous with this stage in people’s lives. A couple in a bath tub, people in drag (including RuPaul’s Drag Race season ten winner Aquaria), scenes of nightlife or groups hanging out on Canal Street all take centre stage in these photographs, which pose a contrast to the country’s depressing and divisive political climate.
Throughout the process of creating this series, many of her subjects became close friends – “many times, we would talk together for far longer than we would take pictures, sharing ourselves, our dreams, problems and fears,” she recalls – and turned Tomanova’s America into a land of opportunity, acceptance and hope. “Can you imagine how important this was to me, isolated as I had been not only from my family and home, but from my friends in Czech?” she says. “If the self-portrait work was about fitting in the American landscape, or seeing myself in it, then Young American was about fitting in socially, having friends, having connections, belonging. In these faces is the young American I want to be.”
Tomanova’s captivating work has caught the attention of Ryan McGinley, one of her greatest inspirations, who actually ended up writing the introduction to her book. “This is a future free of gender binaries and stale old definitions of beauty,” he writes. “In Marie’s world people can just simply be.”