Marie Tomanova, Young American

JTF (just the facts): Published in March 2019 by Paradigm Publishing (here). Softcover, 144 pages, with 64 color photographs. Includes texts by Ryan McGinley and Thomas Beachdel. In an edition of 350 copies. Design by Mira Pipova. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the winter of 2011, Marie Tomanova left her home in a small town in the Czech Republic and moved to the United States. After finishing her MFA as a painter, she saw very limited opportunities in her homeland and decided to try her luck abroad. Her vision of America was shaped by various elements of pop culture (she was obsessed with Sex and the City and Dirty Dancing), and she thought America was generally the same from east to west. She first moved to North Carolina, where she worked as an au pair. Her first attempts in photography were largely self-portraiture and addressed the questions of belonging and searching for oneself while being away from home. A year later, she moved closer to New York City, and started to explore her new environment.

Being an immigrant is essential to Tomanova’s practice as an artist, and photography gave her a tool to find her “own place in the American social landscape, to be with others, to make friends, to have meaningful connections.” Tomanova draws her inspiration from the work of Ryan McGinley, Juergen Teller, and Wolfgang Tillmans, as well as creatives from her own generation, like John Yuyi, Pixy Liao, Emma Kohlmann, and Lotta Volkova. She connected with New York by immersing herself in art openings, gatherings, parties, and fashion events, and using her camera became a way to approach strangers. Her work takes the form of a visual diary, featuring portraits of strangers and friends. It is a project that captures a particular slice of 21st century NY culture, but ultimately, just young people being themselves, wild and free.

This year she published her first monograph entitled Young American. A photo of two young women in a bathtub looking straight in the camera takes up the whole the cover, with the title and artist’s name at the bottom in white. An introduction by Ryan McGinley opens the book, setting the stage by sharing some of the milestones in Tomanova’s life and ending with the following about her work: “This is a future of gender binaries and stale old definitions of beauty. In Marie’s world people can just simply be. I wish all of America’s youth culture looked like Marie’s photos of Downtown, diverse and inclusive.”

The portraits, shot on film in landscape format, were taken between 2016 and 2018 in and around Manhattan. The locations alternate between underground clubs, streets, subway cars, and more intimate rooftops and private spaces, yet people always remain central. Tomanova consistently gets close to her subjects, and their faces take up most of her frames. Her sitters are willing collaborators and clearly excited about being photographed: they eagerly look back in the camera, natural and comfortable. The portraits feel personal and intimate.

Tomanova, who grew up in a mostly homogeneous society, has an eye for capturing unique beauty; her casual portraits stand out for their range of gender variance, liberated sexuality, and creative expressiveness. She seems to be drawn to people with unusual identities, those who openly express themselves, be it through clothes, hair style, or body language. These people are not afraid to be eccentric, to look different, and to embrace their singular personalities.

A portrait of Lily opens the book – a young blond wearing red sunglasses smiling gently, with the Empire State Building appearing as a blur in the background. It is followed by a portrait of Torraine in a white wig with a party makeup, a red dress, and stars covering her nipples; she is sitting on a chair against the wall, perhaps taking a break from dancing. A few spreads later, there is a striking portrait of Aquaria, a drag queen, her electric orange hair and makeup are made even stronger by the bright flash. Another shot captures a dark heavily tattooed face, with the man’s hair blending in with the dark background, making his eyes stand out.

With a few exceptions, most of the images appear on the right page, occasionally extending over to the left or alternating with striking full bleed photographs. A grid of thumbnail sized images with captions appears at the end, simply stating people’s names and the year the image was taken. As a book, Young American, aims to immerse us into the artist’s particular world, without the need for further explanation.

The act of photographing and connecting with people lies at the core of Tomanova’s work, and ultimately, it helps her to find her own space in the community and have a feeling of belonging. Her images clearly draw on the aesthetics of some of her photographic heroes, but they still feel fresh and immediate. Her work is part of a shift taking place in the representation of American youth. Her subjects are celebrated exactly for who they are, with both their flaws and beauty in full view, their eagerness to expand and redefine established gender and cultural roles a given rather than a goal. 

Collector’s POV: Marie Tomanova does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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