Text: Jillian Billard
Photo: Olimpia Dior
All Other Images Courtesy of the Artist
In today’s political climate, to call oneself an “American” is fraught with complicated implications. However, Czechoslovakian artist Marie Tomanova’s “Young American,” currently on view at New York’s Czech Center as the final installment of the center’s “New Bohemia” series, offers an alternative understanding of the term––peopled by New York City’s youth. In a series of over 200 photographs taken over the course of three years (some taken as recently as days before the show opened), Tomanova captures the raw, promising spirit of the city’s young creative community.
When Tomanova first moved to the United States in 2011, it was not quite as she’d expected. (Her collaborator, curator Thomas Beachdel, jokes that this is partly because her perception of the U.S., New York in particular, had been based off watching episodes of Sex in the City as a teenager––a let down I think a lot of us are familiar with). “I was a little naive” laughs Tomanova. The promise of freedom and opportunity quickly revealed itself to be illusory, and as an immigrant, she found it difficult to determine where she belonged. “Photography became a way for me to relate to and understand my place in my surroundings” says Tomanova.
Formerly a painter, Tomanova began taking photographs after seeing a Francesca Woodman show at the Guggenheim just a few weeks after she moved to New York City in 2012. Like the work of Woodman, many of Tomanova’s early works are self-portraits. “I was the youngest child in my family and my parents didn’t take a lot of pictures of me when I was young. I think I took a lot of self portraits to make up for that––to understand myself and where I belonged.” As she began to become grounded in herself and her surroundings, she began to look outward to the inspiring people she has met since moving here.
I met up with Marie and Thomas a few days after the opening of “Young American” to chat about the show. Standing in the gallery with them watching the photographs projected on the wall, I am overcome with a visceral response that is near indescribable. I am reminded of the first time I saw Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”––how the images resonated so deeply that it was hard to put words to it. Thomas reflects this, saying, “there is something…a spirit that just seems to be present…do you see it, or does it go beyond seeing and surface? Do you feel it?” They are more than just portraits––there is something alchemical to them.
Along the wall there are 14 large-scale mounted portraits of selected works from the series. I ask how she was able to choose just a few to hang, when there are so many strong photographs to choose from. “It’s so helpful to have Thomas to curate the show, because I have such a hard time choosing!” Thomas admits that it was incredibly difficult to select just 14 images. “A lot of the ones that we chose to mount are seminal works from the series––ones that really define and informed the series from the start.”
Seeing them in this way––one after the other and side by side––it is immediately apparent that unity is a vital aspect of the exhibition. Each subject, including some of New York’s most recognized creatives such as Quay Dash, Jo Rosenthal, Matthew Sosnowski, Alannah Farrell, Michael Cote, Antonia Marsh, (to name just a few), is shot close-up and straight on; the frame rarely extending below the shoulders. Each individual’s eyes are penetrating––and yet there is a certain softness at play––allowing us as viewers to witness the symbiotic relationship between Marie and the model. “I really feel that it is a collaboration between me and these amazing people I shoot––they offer so much. I am so grateful for their openness.” Each subject’s personality is so distinct, and yet there is a unity to the works that doesn’t skip a beat. “I wanted to express that ultimately, we are all the same.”
Marie is incredibly humble when speaking about her work. Considering the breadth of work she’s created over the years, shooting with her trusty Yashica T-4, it is amazing to think that this is her first solo show. But perhaps that’s what makes the works so deeply authentic––rather than shooting with the intention of producing a final product, Marie’s practice seems to stem from an almost compulsive need to capture the raw beauty and energy that surrounds her. “Sometimes I’ll meet people on the street and ask to shoot them, and sometimes I’ll reach out to people over instagram,” she tells me. “Having my camera is a great way to counter social anxiety” she laughs. “Sometimes I feel out of place, but if I have my camera, suddenly I’m there with a purpose, and can more easily connect with people.”
What is so captivating about the series is that in each photograph, there is no feeling that the person being shot is posing for the camera. They are comfortable enough to be unabashedly themselves. Speaking with Marie, it becomes so clear to me why she is able to connect so deeply with such a vast array of individuals. She has this pure, authentic curiosity and energy that is infectious. “When I shoot someone,” says Marie, “we spend most of the time just talking…I love to hear about people’s lives and backstories, and what their dreams are.”
At the opening of the show, set to Bowie’s Young Americans, the video aspect of the work takes on an entirely different energy than the still, silent images projected upstairs. There is an exuberance; a strength and spunk; and a warmth. The sense of community and vibrant energy is enthralling. “It was so amazing to see everyone at the opening getting so excited about their photographs being projected––it’s such a good feeling.” It’s moments like these that remind us why we live in New York; why we create; why we must continue to strive for acceptance and love despite adversities. “Young American” offers a renewed vision of the tired trope the American Dream––one that fosters diversity, inclusivity, and curiosity.
The notion of “America,” as Beachdel posits in the press release for “Young American,” has “almost mythic proportions.” It is not so much reliant on place as it is a concept. Tomanova’s photographs offer a vision of “America” that I think we all need in this time, when it is so easy to feel helpless––an “America” that is still abound with hopes and dreams for a more inclusive future. “The beauty of youth comes from still having that hope that we can change things” says Marie. “There is power in that.”