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Marie Tomanova, Kayra, 2023
Marie Tomanova, Kayra, 2023Courtesy of the artist

Marie Tomanova’s raw, unfiltered portraits of New York City youth

In her new exhibition, 5 East Broadway, the image-maker brings together still photography and film to revive the optimism of the American dream

It was during a cold New York winter that Czech-born photographer Marie Tomanova first rented out a small studio space in Chinatown from a good friend. Over the next few months, the cluttered room – located on the fourth floor of an old walk-up building – would become the backdrop for her latest project 5 East Broadway, which opens this month at Prague’s Fotograf Gallery.

Growing up, Tomanova would spend much of her school days daydreaming and scribbling in notebooks. Despite always wanting to be an artist, her remote upbringing on a farm in the small rural border town of Mikulov meant that Tomanova didn’t have much confidence. “I was just looked on as a girl and of course the value in that really was as a sexual being, and really not much more than that,” she tells Dazed. She went on to graduate with an MFA in painting, and – unsure of her next step – moved to the United States to work as an au pair.

Moving to New York marked the start of a new dream for Tomanova. “That was the first moment when I actually felt like I could be something,” she remembers. She began documenting young people in the city, and published her debut photo book Young American in 2019. It’s a spirit she recaptures in 5 East Broadway, which sees her invite dozens of young people to talk about their experiences growing up in New York. As well as featuring her classic photography, Tomanova also includes short films in the exhibition, which show the young people dancing to a song of their choice. Below we talk to the image-maker about 5 East Broadway, what it was like moving to New York, and how the young people she’s met have inspired her. 

When you were talking to the young people about their dreams, was there anything that surprised you or that stood out?

Marie Tomanova: The thing that stood out to me and touched me deeply is the direct, raw and unfiltered honesty. The other thing is that these kids seem so sophisticated to me in a way. I don’t know that I would be able to talk about myself like they are able to talk about themselves. The opinions they have. The things that they stand for. The consideration of others. These are all things that stand out to me.

For me, talking about dreams is really an extension of what I have been doing since Young American and New York New York. I would go to peoples’ houses or I would meet up with them, and we would talk about our dreams, fears, anxieties and hopes. I came to New York with a dream and all of these kids either came for their dreams, or are staying here for their dreams. For me, that is really the basis of my photography, that interaction. It’s that connection with others. It’s about them being who they are. And it’s about me being who I am. It really is about connecting. And then, of course, it’s about the audience also connecting with my photographs, the people in them, and ultimately with themselves. When I take a picture of one of these kids what I’m really hoping is that somebody sees themselves in it or understands themselves better. My photographs do not simply show you another person, they also show you me, and they also show you yourself.

How was the connection you made with them an important part of the process?

Marie Tomanova: Connection is everything. In the show’s dreams film, Fourteen Dreamers (I Want to be the Next Courtney Love…But Better), Manavi says, ‘I’ve noticed that people are happiest when they are free, but I think that what makes me happiest is just connection”. I relate to that. I probably shouldn’t even say this, but for me the photographs are not as important as the experience itself of taking the photograph – the experience and the connection, that is everything, or almost everything. That’s why I took colour photos, black and white photos, made the films and asked about their dreams. [I wanted to talk about] the dreams we wish for and also the dreams we have at night – mixing the real and unreal, the subconscious night dreams that reveal our fears and deeper identity and the dreams we create for ourselves during the day as aspirations. The films are in a sense a very Freudian landscape and we are allowed to peek deeper into the inner, private world of these people. Through this work, I wanted to expand the nature of portraiture to create a deeper connection. 5 East Broadway is special in this way – it is like a super condenser. In this project, there is a super honesty, a super directness, a super rawness. People show who they really are – and that is profound.

“My photographs do not simply show you another person, they also show you me, and they also show you yourself” – Marie Tomanova

What is it like to live in New York and why did you decide on moving to New York in particular?

Marie Tomanova: I moved to New York to be free. I came from the Czech Republic and it was really sexist and oppressive and I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even really believe in myself. I had not been supported in any sort of way in terms of being an artist. And so I came to New York City in search of something that I didn’t even really know that I could have. My first glimpse of what I could be came when Ryan McGinley came to see my Young American exhibition in 2018 and spoke to me like a peer. That was the first moment when I actually felt like I could be something. I mean, I guess I knew deep in my heart that I could be. But it really took that support and that love that Ryan showed me to believe that I could. It opened a whole new world of possibilities for me in my own head. But it took a long time to shake off that self-doubt. I like what Alex says in the video: ‘I love New York, I come every day. I love how big it is, how no one cares who you are, and that is a good thing. Because you can be the wildest, most spontaneous, yourself version there is and no one is going to judge you, no one cares’. I have found this to be amazingly true. In New York, I can be myself. That was the most important message in the New York New York work, and Kim Gordon talks about it, too, in her Foreword to the book. 

What message do you hope people take away with them after seeing the show?

Marie Tomanova: Be yourself. Be whoever you want to be. Be.

What are some of your own dreams?

Marie Tomanova: My dream is to continue working with people like this. My dreams are already my reality, in that sense. But I also want to share all of this with others. And I dream of inspiring people – there is a feature-length HBO documentary [about me] in the making, directed by Marie Dvořáková and set for release next year. I am super excited but also a bit terrified, as I will get to relive the past five years of my life on the big screen in cinemas and HBO (they started filming in 2018 before my first solo show Young American). I will expose myself and bring you into my life like never before. It’s a magnificent project and I don’t think I can fully process the whole impact of it yet. I haven’t seen the final cut yet, either – the first time I will see it is this December. It will be a big moment. Also, I am getting a puppy – a Brussels Griffon, maybe named Truffle? – and that’s always been a huge dream. 

Otherwise, I want a solo show at MoMA. How is that for truth? Can I really even say that? I am almost scared to be that honest, but I have to be. That is what my work is all about. Feel it. 

5 East Broadway runs at Prague’s Fotograf Gallery until December 16, 2023 

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