Entertainment » Fine Arts

Unlikely Intimates: Richard Renaldi

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Monday May 26, 2014

Photographer Richard Renaldi didn't always make his living by pushing two strangers together and taking their picture. In college, he actually worked with color chromes. But when Renaldi met his boyfriend 15 years ago, he not only stole his heart -- he also stole his unused large-format camera and began taking portraits of people he found on Madison Avenue.

"I loved it and how it slowed everything in the process down, and I just took off with it," said Renaldi. "The slowing down is an enabler as far as breaking down anxiety and making people comfortable. It enables me to focus on how I'm going to compose an image on the artistic side."

When I first met Renaldi, it was at the iconic West Village dive bar Julius, a former speakeasy briefly featured in the opening sequence of "The Boys in the Band" and now frequented by gay men of a certain age. He asked me to sit next to a friendly-looking gay man and have our photo taken with his odd, old-timey, accordion-pleated box camera. Before long, my legs were draped over this stranger's lap as his arms circled my shoulders.

Photographs like mine ended up becoming part of Renaldi's book "Touching Strangers," a collection of 150 subjects coming together over the course of six years. With the help of Kickstarter and the photo foundation Aperture, Renaldi's third book came to life.

"The book is about a lot of things, including the potential for any stranger to become a lover, partner or friend," said Renaldi. "If we just stop and look at people to see these connections, we can shine a light on how we are all connected, all part of a big human family. Yet there is dysfunction in that family - sometimes awkwardness and sometimes intimacy."

Renaldi told EDGE that growing up as a promiscuous, adventurous teen hunting for sex gave him a bit of a window into conceptualizing this project, and allowed him to become comfortable approaching strangers, especially to connect with people from different walks of life.

The project evolved out of the 2003 series "See America By Bus." In these photos, Renaldi photographed people in Greyhound bus stations across the country. In 2009, he shot portraits for the book "Fall River Boys."

"I met my subjects for my earlier book on communal benches in bus stations, and it took an extra level of orchestrating than a single image did. I liked the challenge," said Renaldi. "It was interesting, dynamic, something to explore. Then I thought, ’What if I ask them to touch?’ I could see their body language and how that would look, and wondered what would be the physical vocabulary that could emerge."

In "See America By Bus" and then later in "Touching Strangers," it sometimes took a lot of cajoling for Renaldi to get two complete strangers to touch or embrace. He said that while many needed direction to achieve more intimate moments than just holding hands or putting their arms around each other, others surprised him by coming up with their own ideas, which added to the experience for him.

"Several times I asked people to kiss; one was nervous and said no about that," said Renaldi. "But I asked some people to nuzzle, and some did. I asked one guy at an arcade in Hawaii to put his arm around another guy for the picture, and he freaked out. I think he got a little anxious about homophobia."

Although he is openly gay, Renaldi said this was less of an issue to his subjects than his bona fides. He made sure to begin every ask of a subject by identifying himself and his earlier work, showing his prospective models photos via his iPad. Most were thrilled to be a part of the project.

And it was not only his subjects’ willingness to participate that excited Renaldi: when he started a Kickstarter campaign with a modest funding goal to help cover the production of the book and the exhibit at the Aperture Foundation, he assumed his friends would pitch in a few bucks and the publisher would kick in the rest.

As luck would have it, Renaldi wouldn’t have to wait long for his project to reach its funding goal.

Shortly after launching the Kickstarter campaign, Renaldi’s project came to national attention thanks to an "On the Road" segment by Steve Hartman on the "CBS Evening News." The segment was later rebroadcast on the popular Charles Osgood-hosted "CBS Sunday Morning."

"We ended up 800 percent over our goal," confided Renaldi. "The CBS piece on the project went viral in October, and it has 2 million hits now." Later, Ashkan Sahihi’s series "Kissing Strangers" went viral, which Renaldi said, "was also inspired by me, I think."

Renaldi was born in Chicago in 1968 and earned a BFA in photography from New York University in 1990. His work has been shown in galleries and museums throughout the U.S., Asia and Europe. And he’s no pie-in-the-sky dreamer, either: Renaldi’s website lists 41 exhibitions he’s been involved with in recent years.

If you’re lucky, his newest exhibit may hit your local gallery soon. The finished book for "Touching Strangers" was shipped into the U.S. last month and was previewed with a party at Aperture Foundation’s gallery and bookstore in New York City. It will move to Seattle in the fall, and Chicago next year.

You can check out Renaldi’s work online -- or, even better, pick up the book and help him fund his next project, "Manhattan Sunday," a series of portraits of people awake on Sunday at dawn in New York City.

"It is photos of people who were out all night in the bars and clubs, or people on their way to after-hours clubs, bookended by street cleaners, prostitutes and quiet cityscapes views of Manhattan that are empty," explained Renaldi. "It is my love letter to New York, shot all in black and white."

For more information, visit www.renaldi.com

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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