The American Dream is perhaps one of the most powerful cultural exports of the 20th century. Every kid, from Tokyo to Lagos, has an idea of what it’s about: freedom and possibilities, prosperity, sprawling highways and dazzling celebrity culture. In the late 1980s, the American Dream even penetrated the Iron Curtain in the shape of sought-after imported jeans and other banned artefacts of the mysterious capitalist paradise. However, there are darker implications to the American Dream, something that has become hard to ignore since Trump’s presidency. In today’s precarious political context, one thing is certain — the diversity of America is something worth fighting for. Marie Tomanova’s series Young American is a beautiful ode to that simmering melting pot.
“When talking to people I photographed for my project Young American, I would ask everyone how they ended up in the US, and I realised that I myself don’t have an answer to that question,” exclaims the photographer.
Originally from the Czech Republic, Tomanova has wholly embraced New York City as her adopted home. Her project Young American, which is on show at the Czech Centre New York until 10 August, is a testament to her American experience and a seemingly simple yet fascinating study of the emerging generation in the US. The exhibition showcases more than 200 portraits, candid and intimate, usually shot with a flash. The subjects stare straight into the camera, which might seem commonplace enough, but here their shared, self-affirming and confident look is made all the more powerful.
Tomanova’s Americans come from all over the world, united not as much by their background but by their presence in a certain time and place: “Some of them were born in America, while others are only visiting for a month. They’re dreamers, drawn in by the charm of New York.”
An immigrant herself, Tomanova arrived in the US in 2011, intending to stay for just a year before returning home. She never went back to her native Czech Republic. She spent the first year in North Carolina, and the second year in upstate New York, with frequent weekend visits to New York City. The place she remembers visiting most frequently was the Metropolitan Museum: “It was the only place I knew and I could get in with only one dollar.” Inspired by a Francesca Woodman exhibition at the Guggenheim, Tomanova enrolled in evening photography classes at the School of Visual Arts. Her immigrant experience, she says, truly shaped her as a person and an artist. The first substantial body of work she produced in the States was a series of self-portraits in the American landscape, which dealt with topics of alienation, belonging and self-discovery through one’s surroundings.
“With self-portrature, it was about trying to fit myself in the American landscape. It was about coming from a different part of the world and wrestling with the feeling that I do not belong here because everything was so different — and actually, I was very different. But I think seeing myself in the pictures really helped me to come to terms with the fact that I do actually belong here,” Tomanova explains. “For the first few years, I was so over the moon that I was in America. I would drive the car on the highway, and everything looked so American: huge cars, huge highways, endless refills of coffee. I remember driving and experiencing these euphoric bursts of happiness.”
Over her seven years living in the States, she says the atmosphere, language and politics around immigration have changed: “It has become more hostile and aggressive, not only in United States but all over the world. It is a scary time and it makes me very angry. In a way, Young American is about the same process of trying to fit myself into the landscape of American youth, not only as a validation for myself but to all the beautiful people who are here — a reminder that we’re all part of something bigger,” she adds.
Young American took its shape as a project after curator Thomas Beachdel pointed out the overwhelming amount of portraiture while going through Tomanova’s archive. With a clear-cut idea, Tomanova spent another year shooting more portraiture, asking friends, scouting people on Instagram or on the street. Altogether, the project is a culmination of four years of her photographic work in New York City.
In this way, Young American is an ode to the energy of New York City and the enduring concept of the American Dream. It’s being exhibited at a critical time, when the word “American” is politically charged and problematic. “Some may quite rightly take umbrage with the appropriation by the United States of the moniker ‘America’,” explains the exhibition’s curator Thomas Beachdel. “Yet, while acknowledging this problematic conception, there is no denying that the term has a resonance of almost mythic proportions, global and local, inside and outside, positive and negative, and far beyond these binary simplifications.”
Looking through the multitude of beautiful faces Tomanova has photographed, it’s also impossible not to think about youth as a cornerstone of contemporary pop culture. With its fleeting nature, youth is a constant source of nostalgia, with its promise of freedom, honesty and passion. In line with the aesthetic defined by photographers like Larry Clark and Ryan McGinley, Tomanova’s youth is about something bigger than just age.
“For this project, I photographed my dear friend artist Slava Mogutin, and he was like, ‘But I’m not young!’ And I said, of course you are! Youth is not about being a certain age, it’s about your energy and approach to life. I often struggle with the fact that I’m over 30 and I still feel young. But I think one often feels forever young,” the photographer explains. “I was very inspired by the new generation of young kids. They’re really fierce, they’re here, they’re active and beautiful, and trying to change things. They’re involved in #MeToo, the gun control movement, and they really stand up for what they believe. They have a voice and aren’t afraid to use it. Social media has a huge impact.”
Working on Young American helped Tomanova create a community around her, and whilst trying to find her place in a new country she has contributed to the diverse and all-inclusive portrayal of that very place. “This exhibition, in a way, is my American dream,” Tomanova says. “It’s about people who are inspiring and open-minded, and it’s a portrait of my own idea of America.”