New York based photographer Marie Tomanova grew up in a small town in Czech Republic. She moved to the United States and found photography, through which she explored her identity. “Young American” is her portrait series, capturing the young people of New York today. There are full of dreams, hope and freedom, which is revealing in over 200 photographs. Since her first solo show at The Czech Center New York in June 2018, the diverse faces spread around the world. She released a book with introduction by Ryan McGinley earlier this March and the last copies sold out when she was in Tokyo this summer at the booklaunch at Daikanyama Tsutaya Books. Her new exhibition is on view at Pragovka Gallery in Prague right now. Many people visited the opening and Czech TV and media featured it. We got an opportunity to have an interview with her the next day after the opening. We met at a café and heard about her works, the real America and Czech, and more.
—You grew up in a small town in South Moravia, Czech Republic. How did you get information from overseas in those days?
Marie: I’m from small countryside town in Czech Republic called Mikulov. When I came home from the school, I worked in the vegetable garden or run around the woods with my dog. It was totally different world than now. There were no international TV channels, but we could watch some American movies from the national channel. Most of the movies were mainstream and one of my favorite one was “Pretty Woman”. I also used to watch “Sex and the City” when I was about 16 or 17 because my best friend’s cousin lived in the United States and they always sent us DVDs. I was obsessed with it. That’s all I knew about the United States and I thought that’s what America is.
—How did you feel when you arrived in the United States and New York?
Marie: When I moved to the United States and New York I was pretty shocked. First of all, it’s very different from the Czech Republic. Second of all, it didn’t look like “Sex and the City” at all (laughs), which was actually really great. New York is a very “real” feeling place with great energy. It is amazing melting pot of cultures. No matter where you come from, what you like, what you are looking for – you can find it in New York. There are a lot of layers in New York and I really like it. It is my new home.
—You studied painting in the Czech Republic, but you are working as a photographer since you moved to New York. Why did you start photography?
Marie: When I moved to North Carolina I wasn’t painting anymore, but I spent a lot of time writing journals. I was recording my feelings, observations, everything felt so new and a lot was happening. I think I tried to cope with culture shock through the writing. After the first year, I moved to New York. I went to museums every weekend and I saw Francesca Woodman’s show at the Guggenheim. It was the first time I saw her work and it really inspired me. There were her photographs and also her journals, her personal writing, which really moved me. It inspired me to start photography.
—How did you start exploring your roots and identity through self-portrait?
Marie: It was very important part of my photography practice. For the first few years I felt like I didn’t belong in the United States. I felt like a stranger in a strange land for a long time. Taking self-portraits was a practice that helped me assert myself in the American landscape. Looking at all the images of me in the American landscape had an effect of realizing and understanding more clearly that I do belong. This process was important for me to understand myself. And “Young American” series are in a way continuation of that same practice. It asserts my space in the social landscape of America and all kids in the society. I feel that I am a part of it now.
—Very important experience! At the same time you photograph these young kids in New York for “Young American”. Why did you start this portrait series?
Marie: It was easy for me to do self-portraits but I was really scared on the beginning to take pictures of other people because there are a lot of responsibilities. I didn’t do it for a long time. However my photographer friend had to leave the city and she proposed me to step in for her to do a shoot for the Brooklyn queer magazine called “POSTURE”. It was a shoot to photograph the downtown rapper Cunt Mafia. It was the first time I photographed somebody else. I was so nervous before knocking on the door but it was great experience. We had a great time and she loved the images. Through this experience I realized that I can actually meet people and make friends very easily through photography. I started to reach out to people on Instagram and meeting new friends, people who were inspiring for me. We would meet for 1 to 2 hours and we talk and take pictures. I love meeting people and taking pictures, it became my new passion.
—Then you met and took pictures of over 300 people for this series. What is important for you in the pictures?
Marie: It’s important for me to create a connection with the person I photograph because the pictures work better if we both feel comfortable and are having a good time. I always need at least few minutes to try to get to know the person.
—Please tell us about the real America through “Young American”.
Marie: The kids in New York are not like “Sex and the City”. It’s way more real and diverse, energetic in many different angles. These are the kids who come to New York to make their dreams come true like I did. They come from all over the world. They are inspiring and very active in the community: pushing for the environmental changes, equal rights, gun control and so on. They are also very active on social media because it is a platform that gives them voice. Nowadays you don’t have to have an interview in “The New York Times” to be heard. You can have voice as well on Instagram. I think that’s important.
—You got inspired by young kids in New York.
Marie: Yes, there are still changes in the society that need to happen and changes like that come with young people, not with the old people who have power and money. That’s how I feel and that’s what “Young American” is about – all these kids who have different backgrounds, gender identities, dreams, opinions. They are the future of America. “Young American” is also about people being exactly who they are. Being tired, happy, tender, vulnerable, prefect in the imperfection. Having pimple and scar and all of that. It’s most importantly about being exactly who you are. Being YOU.
—How was the opening of your first solo exhibition in Prague?
Marie: Great! I was very happy to bring “Young American” to Prague. Many young people came to the opening and the show had an amazing response. In my opinion, it’s still not as progressive in Czech as I would like it to be and it is still hard to be different, to feel equal no matter what gender, religion or color of skin. For example the cover girls on majority of Czech magazines are still the very defined “female beauty” with long blond or brown hair, very sexy, very retouched. It’s important to break the stale ideals of beauty. I admire the Czechoslovak Vogue, because they actually are pioneering in this matter in Czech and on their last cover where beautiful people with fluid genders and sexual identities. I think it is very important. And I hope that through “Young American”, representing so many different identities, people will realize that it is ok to be different.
—At the moment populism spreads around the world. Trump in the United States, Johnson in the United Kingdom, Babiš in Czech and so on. What do you think about this trend?
Marie: I really don’t want to get into politics, but it’s all wrong and insane. I hope it’s going to change at the next elections in the United States as well as in Czech.
—I think you could see your roots from a different perspective since you moved to the United States. What do you think about Czech these days?
Marie: I think Czech Republic is at a really great stage at the moment because my generation is the first generation that had a real chance to go abroad and live for a while in different parts of the world. And most of the people are now coming back and settling back home in Czech. They are starting new restaurants, coffee shops and galleries inspired by what they saw overseas. They are actively investing back in their country and it makes it a better place. I think it is great. It’s good to get new air and new wave of people who saw how it works around the world. The communism ended when I was 5 years old. We were very isolated before that. So there wasn’t really any serious market for art and galleries. People didn’t have money and art was just a luxury that wasn’t accessible. But that is now changing and the market for art is growing in Czech. It is very exciting time and there are a lot of opportunities to start something new.
—That sounds awesome! Do you have any upcoming news that you want to share with the readers?
Marie: I have another exhibition at Academy of Fine Arts (AVU) in Prague from 4th November until 14th December. It is a group show celebrating the 220 years anniversary of AVU. They invited me as a special guest. Also I’m working on the next book and lots of exhibitions that are coming next year. Very exciting!