“This is about me being Czech”: NY-based photographer Marie Tomanová on new Prague show

Dad's Sweater, photo: Marie Tomanová

Photographer Marie Tomanová, who has been living in the US for the past decade, won many accolades for Young Americans, a series of striking portraits that came out in book form 12 months ago. Now Tomanová has a new exhibition in Prague – based on photographs she took on a rare visit to her hometown in south Moravia in late 2018. I spoke to her just ahead of the opening of It Was Once My Universe.

Dad’s Sweater, photo: Marie Tomanová

Willy with Horses, photo: Marie Tomanová
It Was Once My Universe is a video installation based on a series of photos you took in Mikulov when you returned home there after a period of almost a decade in the US. How did it feel for you to be back home after so long away?

“It was a very strange feeling. It felt confusing and conflicting, in a way.

“Because when I lived in the United States for such a long time, whenever something went wrong, or there were tough times, as always happens, I always dreamt, If anything goes really bad, I’m going to go back home!

“So I always had money hidden in my sock for a plane ticket. You know, the last resort [laughs].

Behind the House, photo: Marie Tomanová
“And finally, coming home, I realised that I do not really belong there any more either.

“It felt like I was a stranger in my own home, which is something I had never experienced before.

“I think it was very important to me to have the little camera and keep taking pictures, because in that way I kind of coped with the situation.

“And also looking back at them, it in a way kind of had the same feeling as what I did in the US before, where I felt like a stranger at the beginning, which was taking pictures in nature and seeing myself in the American landscape.

“Now it kind of helped me in the same way, seeing the pictures, and –there are some self-portraits as well – seeing myself in my home again and kind of trying to feel like I’m still part of it and I belong there.”

Photo: Marie Tomanová
What are the subjects of your photos from this recent trip to Mikulov? What was it that grabbed your eye?

“In the new work there are a lot of stills and landscapes and pictures of personal artefacts and stuff that I didn’t really photograph before, or didn’t show before.

“So it presents a whole other depth of the work – not just faces and people.

“And I guess I’m fascinated by my stepfather’s horses, which is something I was fascinated with before; when I was painting, I was painting a lot of horses.

“It was almost like a journey of rediscovering my home again. Things that are totally basic and normal, which I didn’t pay attention to before I left for the US, all of a sudden felt new and precious.

“I really felt like I need to record them – to kind of have them or own them, in a way.

Willy, photo: Marie Tomanová
“It’s a very personal work that I’m still a little uncomfortable with showing, because it’s so recent and still raw for me.

“But it’s also a way how to cope with the whole situation as well.

“And sharing it with people also works for me in a very strong way.”

The other part of the show here is called Live For the Weather and that’s based on photos you took on a mobile before you went to the States, in the second half of the 2000s. In terms of style, do you see any continuity between the work from before you basically learned to be a photographer and what you’ve done more recently?

“I think there are a lot of things that are in common.

Mom’s and Willy’s seat, photo: Marie Tomanová
“First of all, those pictures that I took between 2005 and 2010 were just for myself.

“I never thought of showing them anywhere, because there was no Instagram, we didn’t use Facebook for showing pictures, selfie wasn’t a thing.

“It was just to kind of keep the precious moments and keep them alive a little longer through the photographs.

“And looking at that body of work, which I edited together with the curator Thomas Beachdel back in the US, I felt like I was looking at a whole different life.

“It’s like the time before, which felt so distant in the United States, with all my best friends; there’s a lot of people – we were a really tight group of friends.

“It’s very immediate, very raw, very personal.

Photo: Google Street View
“And I think it in a way relates to the new work because it has the same diary-like feeling to it.”

After so long away, this I think is your second exhibition in Prague in six months, or maybe even less. You’re also nominated for the Czech Grand Design awards. Is it important to you to have that kind of link to this country?

“Yes. It’s a very precious and beautiful thing to come back home and have a show, you know.

“It’s a great reason to come here [laughs]!

“It’s also very beautiful to be able to show the Young American work, which I showed at Pragovka, and to bring all of the young kids from New York back here and share it with the people here.

“I’m very curious as well about how people will react to this work, because this is about Czech people, this is about the Czech country, this is about me being Czech, this is about all the people here in Czech.

It Was Once My Universe

Galerie 35m2,

Víta Nejedlého 23, Prague 3

March 7 – April 5, 2020

“I think it’s very different from the Young American work, so I’m curious how that will go, what people will think.

“And it’s a lot about displacement and leaving the country and coming back.

“I think I’m from the generation where lots of people left and then came back.

“So there is a lot that I think people will relate to, because I’m from the generation that was able to travel abroad.”