9 x 10.5 inches
First edition of 350
From the artist:
Marie Tomanova’s debut monograph Young American celebrates an idea of an “America” still rife with dreams and possibilities, hope and freedom. As a Czech immigrant struggling in a new environment to belong, to come to terms with her repressive past and her uncertain future, the portraits taken between 2015 and 2018 in New York City visualize an America in which individuality is valued as uniqueness and not judged as a lack of sameness. Young American resonates with directness, presence, and the ability to see deeply an individual with whom we can somehow identify.
It is about optimism, youth, and the connection between people—the humanness that is essential to us all. To look deeply at Tomanova’s portraits and to see them looking deeply back at you is the heart of this work. Young American asserts the hope for a better future as an antidote to an oppressive and intolerant social and political situation in the United States and, perhaps, globally. Young American points not only to youth empowerment and the potent voice and presence that has emerged with it, but also to the welcome disintegration of any sort of set idea about identity.
One could contextualize Tomanova’s Young American in the increasingly important and powerful voice of youth culture that is in the process of vitally reshaping gender, society, culture, and igniting a much-needed ideological revolution. As photographer Ryan McGinley writes in his introduction to Young American, “This is a future free 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.”
Grab a copy of the book here
Book review by Kelsey Sucena |
I found an article from 1998 that attempts to answer the question “What is an American?” With naive enthusiasm the author asserts his thesis: “An American is anyone who loves life enough to want the best that it has to offer.” His answer is sweet, succinct and broad, but also coded and insidious. Don’t we all want the best from life?
Apparently no, the author argues. “Unfortunately, the American spirit has eroded. Our forebears would look with sadness at the servile and envious character of many of our citizens and policymakers.” So then, if you are unwilling to exploit the labor of others (or unwilling to have your labor exploited), the author implies, you are not ‘American’.
At this point it’s worth noting that the article in question was published by the Cato Institute (a libertarian/conservative think tank funded by one of the Koch brothers) and so is almost comically biased against anything that resembles class-consciousness. It also represents a dominant narrative within the political sphere. This kind of fiery rhetoric has been weaponized against immigrants, people of color, queer folk, young people, and advocates from the working class. It reflects a problem with the right-wing monopoly on ‘American’ identity. Who are they, I wonder, to tell us what Americans are?
In my last piece for Float Photo Magazine, I addressed questions of nostalgia, freedom, and American identity posed by Cody Bratts emotional monograph, The Love We Leave Behind. The question of how to address America's past gave way to a dismissal of that past, or at least of the fetishism that has come to define our relationship to it. But what of the future? Or even more relevantly, what of the present? It’s within this sad vacuum that I first came upon the work of Marie Tomanova, an immigrant, American, and artist from the Czech republic.
In her sprawling and gorgeous study Tomanova offers us new Americans. These figures break free from the well-worn aesthetics of cultural hegemony and traditional binaries. In a sequence of 64 photographs we see the faces of young and proud people. They are rendered frozen within the lighting strike of a camera flash in bright, beautiful, and often highly saturated color. The energy and grit embedded within the compositions echoes the aesthetics of Tomanova’s predecessor and advocate, Ryan McGinley, while charting a new course for this brand of street-style photography.
With a Becher-esque eye for typology, most of the subjects look directly into the camera, their bodies occupying roughly the same amount of space within each frame. As with the Bechers, this compositional repetition simultaneously collapses and expands the individuality of each subject. We get a sense of uniformity from their confidence and environment, while we revel in the unique expression of each person's style and fashion sense.
Bold outfits, fanciful hair colors and incredible makeup catch our eyes and queer the space. Despite all of the attitude and the excitement, we are not wholly distracted by the fashionability of the subjects so much as we are drawn into the empowering and emotional space of their gaze. Photography is so often about looking out, but here we are lucky to catch our subjects looking back. It’s an empowering gesture that grants a degree of agency to the individuals and suggests a more equal footing. These Americans are egalitarian, hopeful, diverse in every sense of the word, lively, powerful and beautiful. From them (or in between them?) I can see my own subjectivity, my own perspective, my own identity reflected within the glass of American life.
The book opens up with an introduction by Ryan McGinley, and an essay by Thomas Beachdel. These textual elements, while lovely and helpful for establishing context, feel just a tad ornamental and are not as necessary to the success of the project as the photographs themselves. There is some sense in which we feel McGinley passing on his torch, authorizing a new generation of artists to begin the project of redefining youth as he once did. The writers take time and care to describe Tomanova not just as an artist but as an individual, highlighting her experiences as an immigrant to the United States searching for the place where she fits in.
In a kind of intertextual exchange, Tomanova, McGinley and Beachdel reach out to other artists with similar concerns. Nan Goldin, Ren Hang, and Ethan James Green are all evoked either directly in name or indirectly in spirit. It’s worth noting that Young American was created within the same time and space as Green’s Young New York [Aperture, 2019]. They even feature some of the same subjects, the artist duo and power couple Ang and Gia conspicuously present within both projects. Still, while Young American may feel formally and conceptually similar to Green’s project, Tomanovas concerns remain specific to her own life and identity as an immigrant. Tomanova’s decision to name her project Young American simply but critically implicates an identity thought lost to those who oppose the difference and queer freedom she captures here. Tomanova puts it mostly beautifully when she says:
“When I started this project, I don't know if I was necessarily trying to capture ‘America.’ It was more driven by the urge to find my own place in the American social landscape, to be with others, to make friends, to have meaningful connections. As I shot this project, it became clear to me that it was about more than my place in the landscape, but that it reflected an idea for me of what America is or should be. And this became a very powerful aspect, particularly when the politics started to really get crazy.
As an immigrant, there were periods of time when I felt really scared and at the same time I was shooting these young kids who were so inspiring. They are what America is for me. For me, these portraits are really a portrait of America, and they assert the strength and visibility of this America.” [Tomanova speaking to Paper Mag, April 9th, 2019]
So then, if there is no essence to define ‘American’ (my assertion, not Tomanovas) how can we begin to understand this complicated and contradictory subject point? Community is the word I would use. It’s one that represents friendship, contact, closeness, and all of the things that are exemplified by Tomanova’s eye. Tomanova’s photographs, and her words, directly challenge the isolation, the othering, the alienation of late capitalism in America which would otherwise break apart this young collective. They bring together a cast of outcasts, a world fresh with new ideas and forms of self-expression.
In connecting them to Nan Goldin, to Ryan McGinley, and to a lesser extent Ethan James Green, we see the foundation of not just a community, but an entire genre. This is the genre of “American” in which I want to place my hopes. These are the people with whom I identify and connect. These are the voices I want to hear. Tomanova’s reclamation of our lives, our freedom, our hope and our identities amounts to nothing less than a monumental political project. Americans are no longer just ‘those who love life’, atrophied by a desire to conform to the conditions forced upon us. Here, within the revelatory floodlight of her camera flash, we are so, so much more.
Grab a copy of the book here