Photographer Marie Tomanová: These people bent down and saw me in the tree trunk and I was like, Hi!

Photo: Archive of Marie Tomanová

US-based Czech photographer Marie Tomanová is known for her striking portrait work and often nude images of her own body interacting with nature. Right now Tomanová’s career is on the up and up. She made a splash in New York with a solo show this year, has her first monograph coming out soon and is also set to be the subject of a documentary. When we met, I asked the Moravian-born artist what had led her to the US almost eight years ago.

Photo: Archive of Marie Tomanová

“I never really was the kind of person who dreamed their whole life of going to the United States – that never really was my intention.

“But after I finished my master’s degree as a painter in the Czech Republic there was not really that much for me to do – I just didn’t know how to do the career and make actual money.

“I decided to go to the United States and ended up signing up for an au pair programme. So the first two years I was an au pair in the United States.

“When I got here on one side I was disappointed it wasn’t like Sex and the City and on the other hand I was really happy that it’s way more diverse than that image.”

“I think I was quite old for that already, so it was a little dreadful but I survived [laughs].

“My first year I was in North Carolina and then I moved to upstate New York and after that I moved to the city and just fell totally in love.”

How did the reality of America compare to the image that you had growing up?

“Oh my gosh, it’s such a huge difference from what I always thought that America was like.

“The most I knew about America was from movies and, to tell the truth, I watched Sex and the City obsessively, which is crazy.

“I really loved it when I was 17, 18 and we had these smuggled DVDs from my best friend whose cousin lived in the United States. He was sending it in the mail.

Marie Tomanová,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I loved it and I really thought that’s how people live. I guess some still do, that’s true, but it’s not the reality of New York.

“So when I got here on one side I was disappointed and on the other hand I was really happy that it’s way more diverse than that image, so much richer.

“There are so many more layers than just that.

“But just so you have an idea, I was so naïve about America that when the offer to be an au pair in North Carolina came in I was like, Why not, America is the same everywhere – I’ll got to North Carolina.

“I had no idea [laughs].”

I believe you started in photography by using a cell phone. It seems like a very unusual route to photography.

“You know, I always consider that I started photography in the United States after I saw Francesca Woodman’s show at the Guggenheim Museum.

“That’s when I had a semi-professional camera and took a few classes at the School of the Visual Arts and started to do photography.

Photo: Archive of Marie Tomanová
“But then I worked on a show with curator Thomas Beachdel, an art historian, and he pulled and went through some of my older work that was shot in Czech on my first cell phone.

“I had never considered that real photography or art until we actually put it in the show – and it all made sense.

“It was actually really interesting to see these pictures that were shot on my first cell phone with a camera – nobody else in my little town had that.

“I was photographing everything just for the purpose of having it. Because I’ve always been keen on writing journals, so thi cesi v new yorku s was like a visual journal for me.

“I didn’t think of them in any other sense but than just having a record of stuff

“And when we were looking at what were seven- or eight-year-old photos, and even older than that because I started to do them in 2005, I was really surprised at how raw and real those pictures were.

“Because they weren’t shot for any purpose – they were just these glimpses of the real life we were living in Mikulov.”

A lot of your work is focused on self-portraits of your own body interacting with nature. What’s the idea behind that approach?

Photo: Archive of Marie Tomanová
“That kind of evolved organically, based on a couple of things, coincidences around the time when I started photography.

“The first thing was I didn’t really have that many friends around. Basically almost none [laughs].

“I was still an au pair in upstate New York, meaning my schedule was pretty rough.

“I was working all the time, and whenever we would travel with the family – because we did quite a lot of travelling, which was really great – I would wake up two hours before work at 6 in the morning and run out, get the morning light and take a couple of pictures in the green lands where nobody was around [laughs].

“That’s how it all started.

“It wasn’t nude in the beginning – they were dressed. But then there was the constant problem of what to wear, to project some fashion, what it means, blah, blah, blah.

“I didn’t want to deal with that – it was kind of not necessary.

“So then it became nude. And I actually started to do trips on my own into nature: West Coast, Oregon, which is beautiful – I’ve never seen nature like that. It’s just gorgeous.

“I shot a lot in Maine also. It’s been a great experience for me.

“What I like about the self-portraits is that it’s a process where I am in charge of the photo, the set-up, the whole composition.

“It’s me running back and forth. It’s cold, warm, raining. I’m nude and laying on the moss.

Photo: Archive of Marie Tomanová
“The whole experience of it, the feel of it, the smell of it – that’s all that interests me in the picture. I am more interested in the actual process of making that photo, in a way.

“I’m from a tiny town in South Moravia and I always spent so much time outside.

“And I didn’t realise how important that is for me until I moved into New York City and everything is concrete and it’s just busy, you know.

“So that’s kind of my escape back to nature and back to my roots.”

I think a lot of Americans wouldn’t be very comfortable with public nudity. Have you ever gotten in trouble for running around naked in the forest or whatever?

“A couple of times, yeah [laughs]. But people usually just laugh and think it’s hilarious, so it’s fine.

“I had this great story when I crawled into this huge tree trunk and people kept walking by.

“There was a camera and a tripod and they were like, Oh, there’s a camera, where’s the person?

“And they bent down and saw me in the trunk and I was like, Hi! This is a school project.

“That always helps [laughs].”

Recently you had a show entitled Young American. What was the thinking behind that show or that collection?

Photo: Archive of Marie Tomanová
“That is a whole new different body of work that I’ve actually been working on for a couple of years, but it all came together about a year ago.

“The name Young American came from the curator Thomas Beachdel.

“We discussed my work and went through my archives of photographs from when I was photographing people around New York City for different projects: editorials, other projects.

“He started to pick all these close-up shot portraits, most of which were shot on my analogue little Yashica that I really love.

“There was a certain connection and it ended up being a project that is very important for me, in a way.

“For me the most important realisation in this whole thing was at the opening.

“Because shooting self-portraiture, whenever there was an opening it was just me in front of the photo, me in the photo and that’s kind of it.

“But with this show so many people came who were in the photographs and there was such a beautiful energy in the crowd.

“They were all so excited to see their picture on the wall and in a projection, because we projected on a wall, so they were like these huge faces with the their huge eyes that just stare at you.

“The edit was really based on something that’s in the eyes – a certain softness or a certain something, I don’t really know what to call it.

“I came to the US and didn’t know a single person and now there were 300 portraits and over 300 people came to the show. It was sweet to realise I belong.”

“But there’s almost like a really raw human feeling.

“And people were so excited. It was just so precious, to experience the connection with such a big crowd of people and realising that I have so many friends.

“I came to the United States and didn’t know a single person and now all of a sudden there were 300 portraits and over 300 people came to the show.

“It was really sweet to realise that I do belong.”

Many of the people you photographed in Young American are very distinctive looking. What were you looking for in your subjects?

“See, it’s all people that in a certain way inspire me.

“New York is a great place for this. I sit on the subway and I see five or six people where I’m like, Oh my God, I want to photograph them!

“So it’s a never-ending inspiration of people around here.

“And whenever I see somebody who just strikes me in a way or inspires me I ask them if they would photograph with me and if I can take their photograph.”

To some degree I think your work also explores issues of identity, sexuality, gender. Would that be easier to do here than in the Czech Republic? Or more interesting here? Or more pertinent here?

“I haven’t been back home for more than seven years.

“I’m going home for Christmas and it’s going to be eight years since I’ve been home.”

“So I don’t really know how things have changed there and I’m really to explore that.

“I’m going home for Christmas and it’s going to be eight years since I’ve been home.

“So I’m really excited to bring my cameras and I can tell you that all the big, next projects are happening partly in Czech as well.

“I’m really excited to explore that connection and the difference or the sameness between Czech and America through identity, through self-portraiture, through portraits of other people and all of that.”

New York is one of the most competitive places on the planet. How hard has it been for you to establish yourself here?

“It is very competitive. At the same time, because it’s not such a small market or small pond, there are way more opportunities.

“Plus the all-over atmosphere is supportive – artists are very often supportive of each other in significant ways, which I think is great and creates more opportunity for you.

“My past experience seven or eight years ago in Czech was that it was always was competitive as well, plus there’s not that many opportunities.

“So it’s kind of more difficult and people put themselves down and I hate that kind of atmosphere.

“Here I haven’t experience that, which I love about New York.

“So it has pros and cons and I just think one has to be dedicated and just keep going.”

Your career seems to be really gathering momentum. You’ve been in lots of prestigious news outlets, there’s a documentary being made about you and you have a book coming out of Young American. Is this an exciting time for you?

Photo: Archive of Marie Tomanová
“Extremely [laughs]. I’m very excited for the book. It’s going to be my first monograph, which is really great.

“And the documentary is just very precious because [Student Academy Award-winning director] Maruška [Marie] Dvořáková captured my first solo show.

“My parents were not able to be here for that, because they’re in Czech, so my first thought when we started this was, Oh, my mom will see how the whole thing came together and finally I can show her what I’m doing here in New York.

“Because she doesn’t really have an idea, she’s not on social media and it’s hard to really show how hard and challenging and exciting at the same time it is to pull together a solo show in New York City.

“So I was really excited about that and then Maruška got to capture the first book and how we will put that whole thing together.

“And she’s going to record how I return home, which is really precious as well.”

If everything goes according to plan, where would you like to see your life or career in say, I don’t know, 10 years from now?

“Well, I would love to do shows all over the world, so I can travel with the shows.

“And just be able to work, do what I like to do, work on more books, more shows.

“And be able to be between Czech and New York – and make money with all of that [laughs].”

Marie Tomanová’s book Young American is due out on the Paradigm Publishing imprint in the first months of 2019. Her exhibition of the same title will come to Prague’s Pragovka gallery later in the year.