Marie Tomanova did not expect to find herself in New York. She didn’t think she would be a photographer either. But sometimes the best things happen when you least expect them. The Czech-born photographer has released her second book, New York, New York, last fall, and recently presented a collection of portraits at the C24 Gallery in Manhattan. The book and exhibition were curated by her longtime friend and mentor, art historian Thomas Beachdel.
“I think New York is a really tough city – the rent is so expensive, the weather sucks most of the time, but I love the people of New York,” she says. “It’s really about the people, all these kids who come from different parts of the world and different parts of the United States to find who they are and to pursue their dreams. New York is always the kind of place for that, and that’s what makes it so special.
It’s an experience that reflects Tomanova’s story of coming to New York. His stunning portraits are a beautiful reminder of what it means to be a twenty-something living in the city, stumbling to carve out your place in the world. There is hope behind them and the feeling that anything can happen. Here, Tomanova talks to us about how she ended up in New York, her early experiences with portraits, and the importance of talking to strangers.
How did you start photographing in New York?
Related: The best photography books of 2021
I didn’t really expect to end up in New York, I come from a small town in the Czech Republic and I studied painting. There’s never really been any current photographers exhibited or taught in school, so I guess I never thought about photography. My studying Czech at university was a bit awkward because we just had terrible leadership at school and it was very male-oriented – basically all the girls were “doing shit” no matter what what you were doing. I finished school and just thought I would never be an artist – I never felt supported or saw a possible career path in the Czech Republic. I decided to go to the United States and I went as an au pair. I really had no idea what I was doing with my life. I think I just wanted to buy some time for myself to make some sort of decision on what to do.
Did you come directly to New York from the Czech Republic?
North Carolina actually. Thank goodness I didn’t go straight to New York because I might have been so overwhelmed. I wrote a lot in North Carolina, like journaling, it was a huge cultural shift for me. I thought North Carolina was big, crazy, fast, like big highways and big coffee shops. I mean it was a total difference from a small country town in the Czech Republic.
My sophomore year I moved to New York, first upstate, but I was coming into town on the weekends and that’s how I met Thomas Beachdel. He took me to the Met and the Guggenheim. At the Guggenheim, there was a Francesca Woodman show and I was so touched by the photos. The work was amazing and they also showed his writings. I was reading his writings and connecting on a very strong level. I decided why not try photography? So I started taking photos, mostly self-portraits at first, and it eventually evolved into meeting other people and photographing other people. It was a really special moment for me because I realized that through photography I could actually connect with this whole new environment. For a long time, I felt like a foreigner in the United States because the cultural differences were huge. Photography was a way to meet people and fit in.
Did you have any filming experience before that?
I actually got a cell phone with a camera in 2006. Instead of painting every day, which I had been, I just took pictures every day. There were no social networks, no Instagram, it didn’t exist at the time. It was really just an archive for me. Thomas Beachdel entered these archives in 2017, when at that time I had already been in the United States for five or six years, and I could not return home. Looking at these photos of my home before leaving felt like a totally different life. And there were so many real, candid images that were just very raw. I guess I’ve been wanting to take pictures ever since I had a tool to do it.
What type of camera did you use to film New York, New York?
Everything is shot on film, Kodak Gold 200 and my Yashica T3, which is my favorite camera because it just looks great. I love working with it.
What does a typical portrait session look like to you?
The thing I was most terrified of at first, I finally realized I was really good at it. I don’t really know the person [that I’m photographing] and I usually meet them in their own space, which means I’ve never been there before and don’t know what it’s like. So you end up in a situation where you don’t know the person and you don’t know the space and you kind of need to improvise on the spot, which I find really satisfying and I really like that. It’s a good challenge. Most works have been created like this. [But] there are also photos of the exterior as it was shot from 2019 to 2021 [during the pandemic].
What was it like to start taking photos again after being indoors and away from people during the first part of the Covid-19 pandemic?
These first few months after March 2020 have been so hard and depressing. Everyone was scared, and I don’t think we’ve gotten out of it yet. It’s just crazy what’s going on. I toured outside a lot around the East Village and around the East River, just walking around the neighborhoods with one person, one-on-one, catching up and seeing how everyone was doing. New York was really intense – not just the pandemic but also the Black Lives Matter movement – there were so many cops, helicopters, fireworks. It was crazy. I finally started filming again in the summer and mainly outdoors. The first time I went out with my camera and started again was Go Skate Day at Tompkins Square Park. Out of nowhere, there were like, I don’t know, 200 kids skating. I just took a few shots and then started meeting people near the East River.
Did most of the people in the book start out as outsiders?
All of them started as strangers in fact. When I arrived in New York, I didn’t know anyone here. New York was a big unknown for me and it was actually very liberating that way. I was unknown and in a sense there were no boundaries set for who I was. In my small town, everyone knows that I’m my mother’s daughter, I have two sisters, and then they sort of label you with this family. It was just a small town. Coming to New York, there was so much freedom and anonymity in a way. And think that’s part of what Kim Gordon talks about in his foreword: if you’re open to it, New York will let you become whoever you want to be because there’s room for that, even if it’s so hectic, people are everywhere, but it gives you interior space.
How much time do you typically spend with your subjects when shooting portraits?
I usually do about two hours and spend at least an hour talking throughout the shoot. I think it’s about meeting people and you kind of have to make them feel comfortable, plus I want to feel comfortable. It’s a mutual thing to talk and open up. I generally shoot two or three films. It’s basically an hour of shooting, sometimes more, depending. But it’s really about taking the time to get to know each other because that’s an important part for me.
Sounds like you must have quite a large archive, how important is it to have someone like Thomas to help you navigate through it?
It is very important. I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t have his support from the start because I kept showing him pictures. He looked at hundreds of photos with me and became a mentor in a way my upbringing in the Czech Republic lacked. I accidentally and fortunately found it in the United States without even expecting it. It was Thomas who dived into my archives and gathered the young american series, which was in the first book. There were 60 images or 65 in the book and over 300 portraits in the exhibition, that was just three years ago. It was my first show and it was a big breaking point. I was very lucky to have worked with Thomas from the start. He wasn’t really trying to push me into a vision, instead I could kind of grow on my own with his support.
Are there other photographers who have inspired you along the way?
Definitely Ryan McGinley – he’s actually one of the reasons I came to New York. I was in North Carolina, I was just writing and I thought, maybe I’ll go to New York, where there’s this amazing photographer and maybe I could be a role model or a muse for him. It would be a great honor, but I never imagined that I could be a colleague for him.
I guess for me as a girl – having grown up in the Czech Republic at one time – we were really just objectified in school, it was very sexist and very inappropriate, especially after going to school in the US. That’s when I realized how bad it was in the Czech Republic and how unacceptable it was – but I couldn’t see it when I was there because I didn’t have nothing else to compare. At one point, I could only see myself as an object or a role model for someone like Ryan McGinley, rather than someone who can be on the same level as a professional. It’s something I never dreamed of at first. It’s been so much going through my own ceilings of expectations. It was an amazing trip.
“New York New York” is available now.