Thomas Beachdel, Essay, Young American

Seeing Myself in You: We Are Really Here

As American a picture—the faces don’t editorialize or criticize or say anything but “This is the way we are in real life . . .”
                                                             —Jack Kerouac, Introduction to The Americans, by Robert Frank (1)

Marie Tomanova’s Young American celebrates an idea of an “America” still rife with dreams and possibilities, hope and freedom. (2) The portraits visualize an America in which individuality is valued as uniqueness and not judged as a lack of sameness. Her images confront us directly and without artifice with the power and beauty of people simply being. It is about optimism, youth, and the connection between people—the humanness that is essential to us all. Tomanova relates to her subjects—they relate to her. It is almost as if they are not separated by anything other than a shared air.

To look deeply at Tomanova’s portraits and to see them looking deeply back at you is the heart of this work. Generally shot on film with a Yashica T4 in a landscape format at a range of less than two feet as the photograph is taken, the proximity between Tomanova and her subjects is itself a leitmotif of her Young American portraits. At such a close range, the emotions of being human are all that matter, the deep psychological and emotional reverberations to which we can all relate are made visible and tangible. The portrait binds together the photographer, subject, and also the viewer. The closeness, the immediacy, the transparency of Tomanova’s Young American portraits allows you, the viewer, to really see and feel who is before you in the photograph, and it really allows you to understand Tomanova as well. (3) And perhaps on a less visible level, the act of photographing and being with others in this shared experience allows Tomanova not only to begin to clearly see and be herself in a new environment, but, fundamentally, to feel as if she belongs.

Tomanova graduated with an MFA in painting in the Czech Republic under what she has termed in several interviews as an oppressive patriarchal system that limited the options for female artists to that of being dismissed or objectified. (4) Seeking opportunity, she moved to the United States in 2011. In 2012, she began to create photographic self-portraits in which she begins to address her feelings of displacement while living far from home. At Ljuba’s (2013) (fig. 1), for example, shows her in a crowded space that is not her own, with everything she possesses in bags off to her side, squatting, almost teetering, her arms folded protectively around her legs. She gazes at the viewer with an uncertain expression, almost a part of the background jumble after having just moved to New York City and into the East Village apartment of an elderly Yugoslavian émigré artist.

By 2014, Tomanova had rearticulated her feelings of displacement into an ongoing self-portrait series that also began to touch on identity, where she attempted to see, or fit, herself into the American landscape. In an interview with writer Alexandra Weiss for Office, Tomanova discusses this series of work, “It was about the body, and how the body fits, and literally creating space for myself by squeezing between tree branches or a patch of moss. My body became a representation for how I fit into this world and the relationship between them.” (5) This can be seen in Untitled (2016) (fig. 2) in which body and tree combine, each transmuting into the other while still retaining their essential separateness. Tomanova’s nude body, seemingly headless, follows the contours of a moss-covered tree trunk, its solidity interrupted by her arm, shoulder, and leg. Having grown up on a farm in a small town in South Moravia, Tomanova felt that nature was an essential part of who she was, and that in the United States, she had grown distant from that, both physically and emotionally. By shedding her clothes and taking self-portraits in nature, a process she relates to performance, feeling, and memory, Tomanova was able to understand her motives. She notes, “. . . the smell of the soil, the texture of the moss . . . it also brought me back to my childhood growing up in the countryside, spending time in the vineyard or in a field. Even though I was in the United States, I was finding myself through these memories of youth, and this sort of familiarity in the unknown.” (6)

Tomanova, later in the pictures, began to be able to see herself as belonging in the United States, as her 2016 self-portrait, Homage to Francesca Woodman (fig. 3) might attest. In an image that also references a formative moment for her in seeing Woodman’s 2012 Guggenheim retrospective, Tomanova configures herself in a way that is similar to one of Woodman’s well- known photographs, Untitled (1977/78). But rather than hanging in a doorway within an interior, Tomanova hangs from a tree on a vibrant green bluff overlooking the ocean, against the brilliant blue background of a summer sky. She is interwoven with nature in a vast, open landscape. The overall feeling is positive. Tomanova came to understand her self-portrait work as an attempt to fit into the American landscape and, similarly, she understands her Young American portraits, which she worked on concurrently (2015-2018), as about fitting into the American social landscape. In an interview with critic Anastasiia Fedorova for the Calvert Journal, Tomanova states:

With self-portraiture, 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 different. But I think seeing myself in the pictures really helped me come to terms with the fact that I belong here . . . . 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 [sic] all the beautiful people who are here—a reminder that we’re all part of something bigger. (7)

The idea of an affirmative space, particularly around the concept of belonging, is paramount in understanding Tomanova’s Young American portraits not only with respect to the subject, but also to the photographer. In these portraits, the subject is precisely, precisely, precisely who they are, and so is Tomanova. They each claim their right to be themselves, present, visible, and seen. The portrait is a testament to the fact that they matter. This particular aspect of Tomanova’s project also reverberates strongly with the Black-and-White Type 55 Polaroid Street Portraits by photographer Dawoud Bey from the late 1980s and early 1990s, as can be seen in a work such as A Girl with a Knife Nosepin, Brooklyn, NY (1990) about which Bey eloquently states, “All of those Street Portraits were about giving the black subjects an affirmative space in which to present themselves to the camera and to the world . . . . The subjects in those photographs all direct their gaze toward the camera, and by extension the viewer. I wanted the respect that I had for each of them to be the thing that the viewer was also left with.” (8) While Tomanova’s work does not specifically deal with issues of race, her project shares with Bey’s the directness of gaze, the aspect of respect, and the connection between subject, viewer, and world. “To photograph is to confer importance,” as Susan Sontag states in On Photography. (9)

Tomanova fills the frame with her subject’s face in the majority of the Young American portraits, asserting and emphasizing the presence and power of each individual. This strategy echoes Pablo Picasso’s 1905 portrait painting of Gertrude Stein, a strong, queer female, whose importance and significance he stressed by filling the frame with her form, quoting Jean- Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ portrait paintings of prominent men of industry, such as Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832).

Tomanova took this conferrence of importance a step further in her debut of the Young American portraits at her solo show in New York in 2018. She presented 222 portraits, each projected eighteen feet wide and twelve feet high on the gallery wall as the video piece, So Far From Mikulov (2018). In discussion, she emphasized how she was amazed and deeply moved by the response of the subjects when they saw their portraits on the opening night of the show. (10) Tomanova underscored that for her, at that moment, the work changed and became more than just about the connection between herself and subject, identity, or a shared humanness. It expanded into what the portraits meant to the subjects themselves. Tomanova saw in their reactions to their own super-size images a dynamic and jubilant ownership of exactly who they are, as they are. In this discussion, I was reminded of Stein’s quip about her portrait that Picasso famously struggled so arduously to complete, “I was and I still am satisfied with my portrait, for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” (11) Tomanova relayed that when facing head-on their own image, her subjects expressed that it made them feel visible and important. It affirmed their sense of self, not in terms of some distant, idealized standard of gender, sexuality, or beauty that never belonged to them, but as exactly who they are, as unique individuals, raw, powerful, and unglossed. (12)

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 perhaps igniting a subtle and much needed ideological revolution. Her project brings to mind a portrait series of types, such as August Sander’s Faces of Our Times (1929) or People of the Twentieth Century. The individuals in Tomanova’s Young American, however, identified simply by name, shine through only as themselves. They are not a type at all, unless the bold individuality of these youth who refuse to be reduced to categorical constraints (race, gender, sexuality, to name but a few) is itself a type. Artist and writer Adam Lehrer touches on one aspect of how Tomanova’s Young American challenges typological paradigms, “This celebration of bodily diversity and assault on narrow societal beauty standards recalls the painted portraits of Lucian Freud who also not just accentuated physical flaws, but also made them the primary location of an art work’s beauty.” (13) Tomanova’s young Americans, at what may be a key moment in time, seem to resist some sort of meta influence on individual identity in favor of one closer to home and more relatable amongst themselves. Within their own social groups, social media or otherwise, they freely reject, or are free to reject, the constraints of absolutes or binarism—physical, emotional, spiritual, or ideological. Young American points not only to the concept of youth empowerment and the potent voice and presence that has emerged, but also to the welcome disintegration of any sort of set idea about identity. Perhaps this reflects the transformation of media culture away from the hegemonic structure of movies, television, and radio, and toward the more precise and personal circles of social media, the exact outcomes of which are yet to be seen.

Tomanova’s Young American asserts the hope for a better future, an aspect of her project that strongly appealed to a wide and international audience as an optimistic antidote to an oppressive and intolerant political situation in the United States and, perhaps, globally. Coming to America after having lived with the oppressive specter of communism and its wake as well as with the limitations that come with small towns, Tomanova sees a positive future in the spirited youth she encounters in New York City, “It’s my vision of America, it’s my vision of the American Dream, and it’s me really finding in America what I wanted and dreamed of.” (14) As writer Lexi Manatakis acknowledges in Dazed, “Turning the visual perception of America away from the intensely political world of Trump, Young American gives viewers a break from the intense negativity of mainstream media. Within beautifully honest portraits, the hopes and dreams of America’s future leaders are boldly illuminated.” (15) It is against this same backdrop that writer Kara Weisenstein situates Tomanova’s project in her piece for Vice, “‘America’ is a fraught concept these days . . . . But if the country’s still intact once Trump is finally booted from office, it won’t be up to baby boomers to heal the nation. The mantle will fall to America’s youth . . . young people are more politically engaged and outspoken than they have been in decades.” (16)

Young American performs an enigmatic balance toward youth without fetishizing it, or anything in particular, except a deep sense of sincerity and the shared space of photographer and subject. In its approach to youth, it is neither Erich Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales (1962-1972) nor is it Larry Clark’s Kids (1995). Indeed, the Young American portraits almost seem to be a distillation, an extension, or perhaps most accurately, they serve as a type of reconfiguration of Tomanova’s 2006-2010 diaristic photography of her life in the Czech Republic. Shot almost daily with the only cell phone with a camera in her small town, years before she would turn to photography as her primary medium, Tomanova recorded moments and relationships, creating out of this deeply personal and emotional trace the 2017 photographic series and video, Live for the Weather. Art historian Ksenia Nouril writes, “Live for the Weather embodies the carefree spirit of youth in the face of an uncertain future. Her lovers, friends, and family members mingle in this asynchronous narrative . . . of youth in the former Eastern Bloc.” (17) Me and Lukáš (2006/2017) (fig. 4) shows Tomanova and her first boyfriend in bed, her eyes, tinged with love and desperate need, gaze into the camera as Lukáš sleeps—peaceful, content, and unaware. Several years later, a message of frailty can be seen in Petr (2010/2017) (fig. 5), which shows Tomanova’s last boyfriend in Czech only months before she would leave for the United States, the fragile soap bubble floating against injured leg symbolic of what they had and would have no longer once she was gone. Indeed, what Luc Sante writes about Nan Goldin could equally apply to Tomanova, “She looks through the eyes of her subjects, in both directions . . . . She sees herself in her subjects; the doors between her life and work are kept wide open. And that is why, when I look at her pictures . . . I see my own life, then and now.” (18) And it is to this body of work that a comparison with Goldin may be appropriate not only in terms of the constant presence of the camera in the intimate, close, and personal relationships, but also in the overall feeling. There is a candor and a depth of feeling carried from Tomanova’s early work in Czech into Young American that still elicits a qualified comparison with Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (MoMA, 2017) in terms of emotional impact, but strays from too close an analogization, as Tomanova’s Young American resists Goldin’s powerful sense of nostalgia, darkness, and struggle. There is a tenderness and an openness in Young American, a hope, an optimism, even if it is veiled by other emotions. With a stripped-down background that adds very little in terms of emotional force, unlike Goldin’s Ballad that derives so much from the setting, Young American speaks, almost only, or at least most powerfully, through the eyes.

Young American resonates with directness, presence, and the ability to see deeply an individual with whom we can somehow identify. In Tomanova’s words, “This work is really a portrayal of humanness. I hope people can look at these pictures and see themselves—I see myself in them . . . . And I hope that people see that we are all just that: people, with the same human core.” (19) The conveyance of an acute human connection through a photograph can also be seen in the work of photographer Rineke Dijkstra. (20) While different in details, such as format and focal distance, the portraits from Young American, such as Alton (2016) (fig. 6), share with Dijkstra’s 1992-1996 Beaches series, for example, a compelling immediacy, honesty, and humanity. In an essay on Dijkstra, curator Jennifer Blessing identifies the empathic, “emotional communication between photographer/viewer and subject as a if not the fundamental characteristic of her work,” a statement that could be equally applied to Tomanova’s Young American portraits. (21) The image, the portrait, the relationship between Tomanova and subject, the relationship between photograph and viewer, and ultimately, the relationship between photograph and society, establishes a bond of humanness and sensitivity in which there is, or has a potential for, tolerance, acceptance, identification, and affinity.

Human connection and exchange are crucial features of Tomanova’s work, as she emphasizes in speaking about her process for the Young American portraits in an interview with writer Hannah Ongley for i-D,

When I would go photograph them, I also realized that most of the time I talk with them, and shoot less than half of the time. I really love to hear people’s stories and I love to know where they’re from, where they came from, what their dreams are, and what is important to them. That’s a big part of establishing intimacy. A lot of these people really opened up and let me in. There’s a special something in the photos, in their eyes, that is very visible and important. (22)

Tomanova’s comments echo those of Dijkstra, who states, “I like to photograph people: the camera is a way to connect with people and to find out who they are and how I relate to them. In the end, it’s all about recognition and reflection.” (23) Goldin also writes on this notion of relationship and connection but ties it more closely to the act of photographing itself, “I sometimes do not know how I feel about someone until I take his or her picture . . . . The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me.” (24) Tomanova’s emphasis on connection is important, particularly if one considers it in light of how photographer Wolfgang Tillmans speaks of the process of portraiture as one of exchange: “Making a portrait is a fundamental artistic act—and the process of it is a very direct human exchange, which is what I find interesting about it . . . . The actual dynamics of vulnerability and exposure and embarrassment and honesty do not change, ever . . . it requires of me as a person to be sort of intact and fluid.” (25) This process of exchange is essential for understanding Tomanova’s Young American portraits that reveal honesty and openness as a shared space between photographer and subject.

It is this certain honesty and openness that brings Tomanova’s Young American portraits most strongly into the sphere powerfully occupied by the photographer Ryan McGinley. McGinley’s youth, such as Tom (Queen Anne’s Lace) (2011), share the incredible sense of just being that can be seen in Tomanova’s portraits, such as Kate and Odie (2017) (fig. 7). There is a compelling and touching sincerity in these images that speaks not only to the subject being exactly who they are at that moment in front of the camera but to the closeness or perhaps even magical space between subject and photographer. It is this space, which may really be more about who Tomanova or McGinley are as people than anything else, that allows the photograph to be transcendent and to go beyond mere record keeping or image making. Perhaps, then, there is something present that is not purely a function of what is in the photograph itself, but also a trace, a reflection, of the deep and meaningful bond between photographer and subject. This connection subverts a concept of photographer and subject as predator and prey, a reminder of the old-fashioned, repressive binarism and separatism that need to be constantly challenged in favor of the empathy and celebration of individuality that are powerful aspects of both Tomanova’s and McGinley’s work. (26) There is a something that just seems to be present. It may be that punctum as “a kind of subtle beyond” that theorist Roland Barthes describes in Camera Lucida, but even if it is not, there is still something there . . . . (27) Do you see it, or does it go beyond seeing and surface? Do you feel it? The exterior, the image, only reveals what is below, and that is a heart . . . beating. Can you feel the pulse and know that they are you?

(1) Jack Kerouac, introduction to The Americans, by Robert Frank, 3rd ed. (repr., New York: Scalo, 1995). First published as Les Américains (Paris: Robert Delpire, 1958; New York: Grove, 1959).

(2) Some may, quite rightly, take umbrage with the appropriation by the United States of the moniker “America” to lay claim to itself. 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.

(3) Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans mentions how the process of portraiture never lies about what is behind the camera. Wolfgang Tillmans, Artist Talk at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2011, “Wolfgang Tillmans,” Royal Academy Schools Annual Lecture, London, 22 February 2011, in Wolfgang Tillmans, ed. Theodora Vischer, exh. cat. (Basel: Beyeler Museum; Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2017), 71.

(4) Priscilla Frank, “Photographer Marie Tomanova is Not Interested in Being Told How to Be Seen,” Huffington Post, 30 June 2017, photographer_us_59529aa5e4b0da2c731ef963.

(5) Alexandra Weiss, “Marie Tomanova’s America,” Office Magazine, 29 June 2018,

(6) Weiss, “Marie Tomanova’s America.”

(7) Anastasiia Fedorova, “This is America: Celebrating NYC’s Diversity, One Portrait at a Time,”Calvert Journal, 16 June 2018, america-czech-photographer-marie-tomanova-portraits-new-york.

(8) Fayemi Shakur, “Dawoud Bey: 40 Years of Photos Affirming the ‘Lives of Ordinary Black People,’” New York Times, 24 December 2018, /lens/dawoud-bey-seeing-deeply.html.

(9) Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 28.

(10) Thomas Beachdel in post-opening discussion with photographer, 28 June 2018.

(11) Gertrude Stein, Picasso (London: B.T. Batsford, 1938; New York: Dover Publications, 1984), 8. Citation is to the Dover edition.

(12) See note 10 above.

(13) Adam Lehrer, “Photographer Marie Tomanova Shoots American Youth to Examine Her Own Relationship to Her New Home,” Forbes, 30 July 2018, american-youth-to-examine-her-own-relationship-to-her-new-home/#225ab3624b73.

(14) Hannah Ongley, “Photographing the Raw Spirit of Young America Today,” i-D, 28 June 2018, immigration.

(15) Lexi Manatakis, “This Exhibition Pays Homage to America’s Vital Youth Culture,” Dazed, 27 June 2018, young-new-yorkers-lgbt-america-marie-tomanova.

(16) Kara Weisenstein, “An Immigrant’s Photos of American Youth,” Vice, 11 July 2018, hope-for-the-future.

(17) Ksenia Nouril, “Live for the Weather,” Osmos Magazine, Issue 14 (Winter 2018), 62.

(18) Luc Sante, “All Yesterday’s Parties,” in Nan Goldin, I’ll Be Your Mirror, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art; Zurich: Scalo, 1996), 103.

(19) “The Hope-Filled Photographs of New York City Youth,” Sleek, 11 July 2018,

(20) Poul Erik Tøjner, forward to The Louisiana Book, by Rineke Dijkstra, ed. Michael Juul Holm (London: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and Koenig Books, 2017), 7. “Dijkstra’s photographs and videos open a window into the individual people they portray . . . they open up the possibility of social identification. It is not just about an individual other, in whom we recognize the human in ourselves; it is also the experience that all the others, like myself, are unique . . . If the others are a bit like myself, I am probably also a little bit like them: we share the collective fate of being individuals.”

(21) Jennifer Blessing, “Empathic Mirroring: Transition and Transformation in Rineke Dijkstra’s Portraits of Girls and Young Women,” in Rineke Dijkstra, Wo Men (Gothenburg: Hasselblad Foundation; Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2017), 206.

(22) Ongley, “Photographing the Raw Spirit of Young America Today.”

(23) Sandra S. Phillips, “Twenty Years of Looking at People,” in Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective(New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2012), 14.

(24) Nan Goldin, Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York: Aperture, 1986), 6.

(25) Tillmans, Royal Academy Schools Annual Lecture, 22 February 2011, 71.

(26) Sontag, 14. Sontag discusses photographer and subject as predator and prey. “To shoot” can be a colloquialism for the act of taking a photograph. Nan Goldin challenges the predatory aspect of photography. See Goldin, Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 6.

(27) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 59.