Once upon a photography seminar in Bozeman, Mont., my professors challenged us to make work like Richard Renaldi. Not in his style, or modeled after him, per se, but work that challenged the viewer. They wanted us to create images that raised questions our audience didn’t know they initially wanted to ask, while simultaneously teaching them something about themselves. Images that didn’t need an explanation or an artist statement (although we ultimately had to write one anyway). Frankly, if you look at my own work, Renaldi’s influence isn’t hard to spot.
Renaldi wasn’t the first to popularize formal portraiture but, stylistically speaking, his work creates a very particular brand of intrigue. Every expression, every color, every placement of an arm or angle of his subjects’ feet can be analyzed. They’re all clues. Clues into Renaldi’s vision and clues into the life of the individuals posing. Their confidence and their insecurities are all front and center for you to investigate and reflect on. That is what I love about Renaldi’s work. At times it raises more questions than answers, but you’ll always walk away re-evaluating who you are and what it all means to you.
His series “Touching Strangers” especially makes us consider our relationships. Renaldi traveled the U.S. asking two or three random individuals to touch. That’s it. He instructed them and guided the process, but the nuances are what’s important. The nervousness, the unease, the compassions and the unexpected comfort. The intimacy. It’s all both honest and somehow…hopeful. Regardless of what Renaldi says, there is hope to be found in that body of work. Especially now.
This week, legendary photographer was kind enough to hop on the phone with us and discuss the intricacies of what he does, how he makes it happen, and what it’s like to shoot a large format camera under the influence.
The way you compose things… it’s such a casual composure, your imagery as a whole. I was sort of curious if that’s premeditated or if it’s pieced together?
How do you mean casual composure? I’m curious. Some people have said that my pictures look very formal. It’s interesting to hear this as a counterpoint.
I think the subjects, more often than not, appear pretty relaxed. In “Touching Strangers” it’s a little awkward, but I think that the project sort of warrants that. The settings and the background seem relatively laid out and planned, where as it doesn’t seem like you pose the individuals all that much.
Mm-hmm. That’s nice.
That’s what I mean. Where it seems composed and it seems pieced together, but it does seem very casual.
Right. I definitely — in a lot of my earlier portraits and also I think in [the series] “See America by Bus” — I feel that often my approach had been to basically try and capture the person where I found them and to let them sort of occupy the frame. Let them own the frame, or own the scene. I try to go for something simple compositionally and clean. The cleanliness always, in a way, informs the backgrounds and the choices that I’m making about keeping other people out of the frame. Previously, I wasn’t as interested in the tension between someone competing with the primary subject. I like to let…I mean if you look at “Touching Strangers,” the subjects own the frame.
I think that was my approach in general, the idea of distinguishing and honoring my subjects by letting them be the focus and the main point of the picture. Our eyes fall primarily on the subject and find some sort of harmony between them and the background. I think I was always looking for this nice compliment to the subject matter with my background. That often did involve isolation of them and cleanliness.
Also, thinking about color and palette. I think those things operated both on a subconscious and conscious level. I was thinking about those choices regarding color and palette. I think that is really important in “Touching Strangers” in particular if you look in the background. People that have known my work for many years saw those pictures up on the wall and said, “Oh, you’re a colorist.” That was such a nice thing to hear actually because it is really important to me. I love color. I think color is beautiful. It’s such a subject in its own right.
I think I was paying attention to those kinds of things. If it all kind of comes together as if it feels very natural. I mean all the better because I always shied away from the flash in many ways because I always felt that the flash felt unnatural.
Yeah, I can definitely see that.
I think that also is another contributing factor to that sense of, how do you describe it? Casualness. I think those [flash bulbs] were really key for me to avoid.
With your current project “Manhattan Sunday” — is that an exploration into black and white since you’ve traditionally done color stuff?
Not really, because there’s a whole other project called “Fall River Boys” which is all black and white. It’s not like I’m new to working in black and white, but choosing black and white for “Manhattan Sunday” was intentional, as with “Fall River” it happened more by accident because I was just interested in trying black and white. It worked out and it suited the project. Whereas “Manhattan Sunday” black and white was a cautious choice from the onset to definitely use the monochromatic palette to depict the sort of mystery and grandeur of Manhattan.
I was going to say, New York kind of lends itself to the grittiness of black and white sometimes.
I thought so and I want the “Manhattan Sunday” work to be more like dream and timelessness. Color can really sort of get very specific and it can hold an image with certain characteristics that when you strip them away, a black and white image can be a little more dream-like and a little bit more timeless, so that was important to me because I want “Manhattan Sunday” to be this experience that you feel like you could have had in the 1940s or the 1970s or the 2000 teens. You know? I wanted there to be a point where you can enter the work from your own point of view and your own experience with night clubbing. I think black and white was really key to lending that emotion.
What is the story behind “Manhattan Sunday,” because I actually haven’t read anything about it, I’ve just seen the images, is it playing off the clubbing scene?
That’s correct. Yeah. Originally I was photographing outside of nightclubs in the morning. The after hours from 5 to 9 a.m., but as the project progressed and as the Guggenheim came into the equation I expanded it so now the whole experience starts at 12 a.m. inside of this night club. I was photographing with 8 X 10 view cameras inside of clubs and then I end in the morning, at like 10 a.m., so it’s a journey through the night. You start in the club and then you’re outside at night. The night time and the morning portraits are interspersed with cityscapes and still-life images.
How the hell did you shoot with an 8 X 10 in a night club?
There’s a lot of other liability issues going on in night clubs, so I guess me and my trip hazard of a tripod and view camera was possibly one of the lesser concerns. After I begged and pleaded with some of the promoters that I’d befriended over the years, I got the okay. That was definitely interesting. There were a couple of nights where I actually partied in the club and then I came and brought out the camera in later hours. That was certainly interesting and ridiculous experience.
Yeah. I’ve photographed 6 X 7 under the influence, but doing it with an 8 X 10 is a whole different animal.
Yeah. I wouldn’t advise it.
I have to reexamine that project. That’s incredible.
The exhibition will be out in November.
Let’s talk about “Touching Strangers.” Knowing that you’ve brought an 8 X 10 around New York in the way you have, this question is a little different, but I’m curious in how you approach the people that you do? Especially in “Touching Strangers” because it’s such a specific, unique project. Approaching the subjects and pairing them, and making sure they’re comfortable while you’re setting up an 8 X 10 because that’s a process in itself.
What’s your process? How often do people say “no”?
I would say 40 to 50 percent say no. Of those, I probably made 205, maybe 220 pairings. I would say about half of them were successful. The set up is slow and laborious. I don’t know how much you’ve read about the project, but certainly the parameters made it more challenging than any other kind of portrait project because you had to find a willing companion and sometimes that took forever.
The process initially was more experimental, it was like, you person A, you person B, let’s see what happens when we try and pair you together. If I looked back on those early attempts, I think that they were not as strong as the ones I made later. I started thinking more and more about the casting and the choices as far as people, and the more careful I started thinking about it, the stronger I think they became, because instead of just random people I was more intentional in the way I would be for any other portrait project, where I would really only ask people to make their photographs if they’re visually compelling, or they have a story to tell, of I saw whatever characteristics cause me to want to make a portrait of someone.
Initially, I found myself making portraits of people I probably wouldn’t have normally asked, if it were not for the experimental nature of the work. More and more I became more intentional and I think that was part of the process. Also, of course, just the introduction of these two strangers would … often the ice would kind of break down between them because I was busy framing and composing the set up. I would be just like, “Just relax. I’m just going to take a few minutes here and make sure I have everything set up.”
During that time period where I was behind the cloth they often sometimes would just start chatting and I think that was really helpful, the slowing down … slower process of a view camera, I think, in general lent itself to that extended situation…
I could picture that being a massive help, that amount of time, or a hindrance in that they have that much more time to soak up the situation and be like, “Oh, this is actually kind of uncomfortable.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think in general people veer towards getting more comfortable the longer they are with someone rather than less. I think that’s just a byproduct of time. See what happens when you give something time. I definitely became more interested in … obviously, there’s a lot of conversation around boundaries, I’m crossing boundaries and I was interested in seeing how far … how far I could kind of push some of the subjects and even take it into more provocative, sexual, flirtatious zones.
It is. It touches on my own experience with promiscuity and being able to, like, touch a total stranger (laughing), which I don’t think a lot of the … when people … as this work has gone viral now a few different times what so many people seem to really latch on to is this idea of hope for humanity and if we could all just get along and building bridges and all of that…
I think it plays on that note of optimism. That is in the work. There is no denying it, but there is also a lot more nuance and subtlety and complexity, so I think if you really spend some time with the work you’ll see some of the awkwardness or some of the eroticism, some of these others layers of emotion.
Interestingly, someone emailed me and they thought … they were curious what the result would be if I had asked them to show animosity towards each other. I’d thought about that. I thought about doing that when I was making the project, but I don’t think that’s the natural, sort of … it seemed very … the whole thing is artifice, but somehow feigning anger seems even more artificial to me. I just wasn’t interested. It seemed like an extra contrivance and to me it’s been my own inkling is to want to be more affectionate with people. Maybe not a Trump supporter, of course. That seems to be more the intuitive request I would want to make of two people putting themselves in a picture together, not to fight.
Have you ever thought of taking it internationally?
I have not. No. Yes, there are definite cultural differences. People relationships, of course, in other countries to space is different, especially in Asia. Spatial relationships are much different between people and that’s interesting. Europeans have a very, “We’re totally perfect about everything,” attitude, so, of course, touch is fine with us. The British people are very uptight and rigid. What would that mean? I think that the United States is such a cornucopia that a lot of those things have been touched on in the work here. I work in both rural and urban areas, so I think that I touched on some of those issues just in the urban rural differences is really pronounced. You could really apply those … extrapolate that to a more reserved country as opposed to more open societies. I felt like I said what I had to say and I didn’t want to take it on the road necessarily.
I did try once in South Africa. It really didn’t go very well because nobody knew what the hell I was talking about. The poor South African accent and my American accent, the communication was very, very difficult in the situation I found myself in. Trying to explain to them the concept, it wasn’t working. It seems like … I’m not really interested in taking it on the road. Exactly, in a sense, for those reasons. The healing component of the idea that often is projected onto the work. I didn’t want really continue going with that either. Okay, we could do this in Rwanda where there was genocide or we could do this … people are doing other things in those places that are super interesting. They are more part of their culture and they have a story that connects them greater to those places than I could do. I’ve always focused mostly on photographing American subjects. That doesn’t mean that I won’t branch out and start a project abroad at some point down the road. For me I feel comfortable commenting more on the culture I know.
I’m sure you have had a ton of conversations just about the project in general, but do you hope to explore it any more or is that project pretty much done at this point.
It’s pretty much done. Yeah.
I really enjoyed it. It’s not to say that I would never return, but right now I’m really focused on “Manhattan Sunday” and my next book and doing an archival project, as well. I’ve got my hands full and I think “Touching Strangers” there’s a lot to say, but I’ve said it. Any more retelling would just in a way be accenting or repeating myself or maybe in different combinations, which of course, when I was working on it I felt like I could do this forever because the mixing and matching are endless.
I get that.
It’s like you can create different pairs because each person is unique, of course, and the combinations of types of people you can put together, similar or different, is endless. That, in itself, is kind of interesting, but then again, I have a lot more to say than just that, so I feel like I’m moving on.
Yeah, of course. Of course. How do you feel about shooting film right now? Is it getting harder?
Oh, yeah. It’s so expensive for color, especially.
Especially large format. I can only imagine.
I’m done shooting “Manhattan Sunday,” so I’m not shooting anything right now, other than my hotel room portraits that I do with my partner when we travel.
That project is beautiful, by the way.
Oh, thank you, and I do have a landscape project I’m working on, but I see that as a multi-decade project, until I find enough concurring images to create a whole book or something. Nothing active on that, so I’m really not shooting 8 X 10 right now. It’s okay. It’s fine.
I love digital and I love iphonography. I’m just an image maker, so I don’t feel like I have only one tool to use and yeah.
That’s such a great, refreshing answer. I mean I feel like it’s so … it’s so split whether people are for digital or against it. It’s really refreshing to hear, “No, both are great. Both are just tools.”
They are great. I mean film is gorgeous. It’s great. The way you create film is so different from digital because you have to really slow it down and you only have one or two chances. I like that about it, but I’m fine with the new technology. I mean they’re not even that new anymore.
I’m excited about the VR. I’ve been enjoying these New York Times … they sent me one of those Google cardboard things that I can watch. Been watching some of these VR presentations. It’s a little grainy right now, but I think it’s really promising, very exciting.
I’m very excited to see where that goes and how people start adapting that.
Do you feel creatively satisfied?
Yes and no.
That’s the perfect answer.
It’s not a cop out either, I swear. I am very pleased with the work I’ve made over the years and the books. I feel very fortunate to be doing what I love to do. That’s very satisfying. I do like to go through my archives and I like my own work. I like how it’s evolved and I like how I’ve grown as a photographer and I think I will hopefully still have room to grow and evolve. I’m unsatisfied because I, obviously, am still always wanting this … I keep saying, “Oh, I’m going to be done. This is my last book for a long time,” or whatever, but I know that I’ll get itchy and that itch is what keeps artists making art. The itch needs scratching or else you just don’t know what else to do.
I think that’s just part of the impulse. I guess they call it the creative impulse, but it seems real enough for me that it does start to creep in. Like I said I’m not making that many images right now and I know it’s going to start to get to me. I’m going to have to do something, but I also have been able to be more patient. Nowadays…I usually have about five things going at once and I used to work on multiple projects and the last…since maybe 2012, the last four or five years, I’ve really slowed down and really focused more on the project I’m working on at the time more deeply. I think that has been to my creative advantage.
That’s great. I think you’re totally right. Virtue of being an artist. You can’t just not do it.
It’s like … it’s the scratch. That’s it.
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