IN CONVERSATION WITH MARIE TOMANOVA
Marie Tomanova is a photographer from the Czech Republic, she grew up in Mikulov in South Moravia and is currently based in New York City. Her work is raw in its essence, vibrant and incredibly intimate. She has achieved major success on an international scale with her self-portrait series, as well as with her ‘Young American’ series – a photographic documentation of the youth culture in New York which won her a much deserved nomination for ‘The Photographer of the Year’ at Czech Grand Design Awards and a nomination for the ‘Photographer of the Year and Book of the Year’ from the Association of Professional Photographers of the Czech Republic. Tomanova shares an exclusive insight into her magical world through photography, highlighting the themes of connection, memory, place and community.
The photographer has just opened an exhibition in Prague at 35m2 Gallery (6 March – 5 April, 2020,Curated by Thomas Beachdel and Frantisek Fekete). It showcases a brand new series titled “It Was Once My Universe”, an ongoing project about her first return back to her family farm in South Moravia in eight years (where she stayed from 2018 to 2019). The exhibition includes Tomanova’s earlier photo essay she created over the 2005-2010 period, before she chose photography as her main craft. This series is a visual diary depicting her life in Mikulov, Czech Republic. Shot almost daily with her mobile phone camera, Art historian Ksenia Nouril said: ‘Live for the Weather embodies the carefree spirit of youth in the face of an uncertain future. Her lovers, friends, and family members mingle in this asynchronous narrative of youth’. I talked to the photographer about her new work in particular, as well as the motivations behind her practice as a whole.
YA: What drew you to photography as a practice initially? And what led you to focus on photographing people?
MT: I studied painting in my home country of Czech Republic and I have always been drawn to figurative painting and self-portraiture. So, I guess my obsession with people has a longer history than just in my photography work. After graduating with my MFA in painting in Czech, I felt quite lost and didn’t have a clear direction, so I left for the United States to be an au-pair. It was sort of an impulsive decision. I have never been to the US before and I thought that a change of environment might help me figure stuff out. I spent my first year in North Carolina, discovering new cultures, new situations, meeting new people, and just embracing the huge change in my life. It was my first time being so far from home for such a long period of time. Leaving my small town of 7,000 people where everybody knew everybody was a bold move and probably the best decision of my life. Though the first few years in the States were not easy and I felt very often lonely, it was also very inspiring time for me. After the first year in North Carolina I moved to upstate NY and eventually settled in New York City. I fell in love with the energy of the city, with the people and the crazy rhythm that this place has. Soon after I moved to NY, I saw Francesca Woodman’s show at the Guggenheim Museum and felt so inspired and fascinated by her work that I decided to try photography. I started to experiment with self-portraiture and eventually began to take portraits of other people who I met in NYC. Moving to NYC, Francesca’s show and meeting Thomas Beachdel – which all kind of happened in the same time – mark a big milestone in my life. Thomas has been supporting my photography since the very beginning and gave me the first analog camera, the Yashica T4, which I still use. We have been working together for more than 5 years now, especially on exhibitions and book projects.
YA: Could you explain how the drastic shift in your cultural environment impacted your relationship with photography?
MT: I think that coming from a small town in a country that used to be part of the Soviet Block for decades and growing up in the post-soviet era really shaped me. I used to be the geeky girl in high school, dressed a bit too extravagant and loud, wearing all sorts of weird outfits and always scribbling and drawing in the notebooks in class instead of paying attention. I shaved my head when I was twelve or thirteen (it was a bet/dare with my father) and I was the only girl looking like a boy among my peers. It was the late nineties in the countryside Czech. Lol. I dreamt of being an artist and I was in search of my community. I partially found it when I went to college in a bigger town to study painting, but it wasn’t ideal. I struggled with the system at school, feeling that the respect for one’s work was influenced and determined by gender to the point that after graduation I quit my dream of being an artist and stopped painting all together. I packed my stuff and left for the US as an au-pair. It was NYC that turned all of this around. It was the kids, the art scene, the club kids, the free spirited and uniqueness boosting generation of NYC youth that all of a sudden gave me everything I was searching for. I found my community. I found a space where I could be who I was, without any artifice. I found people who embrace who they are, and I mean who they really, really are… I fell in love and I think that all of it shows in my images. They are people who inspire me, raw and honest, we reflect on one another. They are the America I love and feel that I belong to.
YA: Could you tell me a bit about your relationship with photography in relation to your worldly environment?
MT: I started to photograph the Young American portrait series in NYC in 2014. I have been continuously photographing portraits since, but until the winter of 2018 I couldn’t travel outside of the US for immigration reasons. I was basically locked in NYC, especially after Trump got elected and I stopped traveling even within the country. So, I really concentrated my attention on NYC kids and it was super interesting to hear their stories and share time together. Lots of the kids come from different parts of the US or the world, and they came here to make their dreams come true and find their community. Like I did.
In December 2018, after almost 8 years, I went to visit my home. It was a very precious and long-awaited moment for me, which also created big expectations and anxiety. I was really curious about everything. What will my hometown feel like? How will be my best friends that I left behind and haven’t seen for 8 years? How is my family?? How is my house and my teenage room that I left there? Everything was super oversaturated with emotions for me and I am glad I had my camera. I basically photographed everything, every day. It felt like re-discovering my own home and the place where I grew up. The portraits that I took in Czech and Berlin are verging out of the Young American series. We included some of the Berlin portraits in the Young American show in Pragovka last year because certain parts of Berlin felt to me like Brooklyn, and also because Kate Vitamin (who is on the cover of the Young American book) traveled with us. But essentially, the portraits shot in Europe are part of a new series I have been working on, which is called “It Was Once My Universe”. They are photographs I shot after my return to Czech in 2018/2019 and I will be showing them in Prague at 35m2 Gallery this March.
YA: What do gender politics mean to you? Is it your aim to liberate the viewers of your work from ‘social normality’?
MT: I have a very strong opinion on this matter and I personally embrace fluidity. I am tired of putting people in boxes or having to define myself. I would like all the “boxes” to just disappear and for gender not to matter at all. I would like to have equality to the point that it doesn’t matter if you are female, male, gender neutral, transgender and so on – I want us all to be SO EQUAL that we can drop the definitions and not be judged and defined by them. We are unfortunately still far from that and I am so often questioned in Czech about my buzzed head in relationship to my femininity that it gets really tiring.
YA: What does youth culture mean to you?
MT: Courage, struggle, freedom, insecurities, rawness, dreams, being lost and believing in never-ending love and friendship. Being young is something we all share, remember, dream of. New things come with new generations. It’s a legacy.
The magical castle gardens where I used to play
Trying to fit in
YA: Could you tell us about your creative process with self-portraiture in relation to the female gaze?
MT: When I first started showing the self-portraiture series, I was included in shows that had this sort of female gaze theme and I am very grateful for that. I believe strongly in that message, but I also have to wonder if this concept is actually limiting and could even be problematic – I would like to move beyond binarism.
YA: What advice would you give your younger self?
MT: To never give up and believe in yourself. Listen to yourself. I think the hardest thing is to figure out what you really want to do, what is your passion, what makes you feel fulfilled and happy. It took me a whole lot to figure that myself and I don’t think there is any recipe for how to do it. I gave up everything in Czech and left for the US not knowing what I am doing. It was really important to spend the first year in quite a solitude because for the first time in my life I had time to concentrate on me – on my inner thoughts and dreams – and to find what I liked in life without being swamped by my group of friends. And then, moving to NYC gave me a whole new opportunity to realize it. I could have ended up as a failed-feeling painter in Czech, but instead I took a risk and left to another part of the world. There were many ups and downs, so the other important advice is to not get discouraged by failure but to embrace and learn from it. Failing and making mistakes is a vital part of any process, and if you can get through and learn from it, then you are a winner. Find your passion and don’t give up.
YA: Your current exhibition titled It Was Once My Universe at the 35m2 Gallery will be on until 5 April, what are you showing there ?
MT: I am showing the most recent work that I shot in Czech as well as photographs that I shot before I left to US. It is a series of snapshots taken with my first cell phone camera and it documents my life and friends in my small hometown since 2005-2010. It is very raw photography in terms that it wasn’t shot for any other reason than just my personal visual archive. I didn’t consider myself a photographer at that time, there wasn’t Instagram or Facebook and selfie wasn’t a thing. It was just the pure need to document what we were experiencing and keeping those memories alive for longer… It is probably the most personal exhibition I’ve done, and I am very excited for it.
YA: Do you have any projects coming up?
MT: I also have a bunch of exhibitions coming up this year. After a while I will be showing in NYC again – I will be part of a group exhibition at C24 Gallery in Chelsea. And I am preparing solo shows for Rasmus Vasli Gallery in Oslo and Czech Center Berlin in the fall during the Month of Photography.
I am also working on a book that I am very excited about, but I can’t share any details yet. It will be a very busy and rich year and I am super enthusiastic about it.
Interviewed by Yasmine Akim
Edited by Ada Kałużna
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