The photographer's new exhibition, 'Like a Dream,' reveals her first trip back to the Czech Republic in eight years.
Czech-born, New York-based photographer Marie Tomanova has spent nearly a decade creating the version of American life she used to see in movies. Her 2018 series Young American immortalizes the faces of people she met in New York: random encounters with carefree spirits at downtown gallery openings, or in Instagram comments, that often evolved into lasting friendships. Tomanova didn’t return to the Czech Republic for eight years. Despite having spent much of them using self-portraiture to explore a sense of displacement, of fragmented self, returning to her family farm in South Moravia was an uncomfortable experience. Not because of how much had changed there but because of how much had not. The photographs she took there are the subject of Tomanova’s first solo exhibition in Tokyo, Japan, Like a Dream. Vast landscapes and overgrown castle grounds shrouded in early morning mist or ablaze in orange sunsets, vague markers of time passing in a town where old school friends still sit in the place in the same local pub.
“I think the hardest part was to face the fact that it is me who changed,” the photographer tells Document. “It is very strange to come back to such a place where you were born and shaped and all of a sudden feel like a misfit.” This unsettling feeling of not-quite-fitting manifests quite literally in self-portraits. One of Tomanova’s body folded into her bathtub, now far too small, is a haunting replica of the most recognizable image from Young American; her friends Kate and Odie lying pensively in the equally tiny tub of their New York apartment. Space and time are both collapsed and blown apart; the neon date stamps in the corner of each frame only hint at a chronological order—Tomanova left her camera set to New York’s time zone.
Adding to this distorted, dreamlike feeling are flashes of memories from the lives of others. In one self-portrait Tomanova stands in a sunlit quarry wearing a long aqua-colored coat, one her mom sewed in the ‘80s, inspired by Western fashion magazines that were hard to come by a then-communist state. “My parents lived most of their life during communism,” Tomanova says, adding that Czechoslovakia’s 1992 dissolution didn’t mark a clean break between then and now. “I was almost five when the Iron Wall fell but I don’t remember any immediate difference living in a small town on the outskirts. I think it took much longer for things to actually change, and it will take generations to change the mindset of people.” She does remember the limited range of clothes you could purchase in stores, and her mom sewing most of her daughter’s childhood outfits. But the piece of clothing she cherishes most belonged to her father, who passed away two days before her 16th birthday. It’s a mossy green sweater, and she wears it in the first self-portrait she took for Like a Dream, standing in the field behind her house.
Creating the series didn’t magically unify Tomanova’s two disparate selves. But it helped her begin to acknowledge that sense of disorientation, and make it a bit less uncomfortable. “I realize more and more I am almost always between places, or there is a sense of multiplicity, if that makes sense,” she says. “That I can share it with others through the work helps. It is not something I have to do alone. I think it is a longer process that will keep evolving also throughout these shows.”
‘Like a Dream’ is on view August 19-20 at SO1 Gallery, 6-14-15 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo.