Photographer Richard Renaldi creates community out of difference
by Lester Strong
Enter the world of Richard Renaldi’s photography and, depending on the images you’re viewing, you may find yourself immersed in a nitty-gritty almost photojournalistic rendering of night life in the big city—or an homage to the wonders of the Manhattan skyline—or portraits of individuals and groups of people going about their business who agreed to stop a moment for Renaldi’s camera—or less-than-bucolic profiles of some of the smaller cities and towns he has visited in his cross-country travels—or—
The list goes on. And although Renaldi’s camera doesn’t lie about the images it captures, you must often dig deeper for their significance or the mindset that brought them into existence. It may not be obvious, but behind the images lie a wide variety of lived experiences informing his work in sometimes surprising ways, among them a fascination with clubbing, a long-term (eighteen-year) relationship with his partner, the architectural photographer Seth Boyd, and AIDS. As he remarked in a recent interview: “I have a foot in the gay community, the HIV/AIDS community, the nightlife clubbing community. My relationship with Seth has had a powerful impact on me. I consider Manhattan my permanent home, but Seth and I like to travel, and we’ve visited all over the country, exploring and photographing. One ongoing project we’ve worked on together is called ‘Hotel Room Portraits.’ They’re photos of ourselves we’ve taken during our travels over the last eighteen years.”
Renaldi was born in Chicago in 1968, moving to New York City in the 1980s for college, where he received a BFA degree in photography from New York University. His work has been shown throughout the United States and Europe. In 2014, he was named a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow in Photography. He has also published four books of his work: Figure and Ground (Aperture Foundation, 2006); Fall River Boys (Charles Lane Press, 2009; Touching Strangers (Aperture, 2014); and Manhattan Sunday (Aperture, 2016).
Renaldi’s photography is very suggestive. From street scenes to architecture to people, in black and white or color, the images evoke an imaginative landscape that reaches well beyond the photographic bones of what his camera captures. In order to provide a glimpse into the deeper wellsprings of his photographic vision, the rest of this interview explores Renaldi’s personal associations with certain words and phrases that come to mind when looking at his work.
Clubbing: “For me, this term evokes fantasy, narcissism, hedonism, expression, release. Also a stage where you can act out either your fantasy self or an idealized version of yourself, a tribalism where you can gather with and connect to other people through a musical beat to feel your common humanity. I think there’s a certain amount of vanity involved in this, and sometimes it’s amazing how people will dress up to show themselves off.”
Strangers: “This is a good word. The impulse to engage with strangers is a key thread through much of my work. I took it on directly in my book Touching Strangers, where I actually went up to people on the street who were strangers to each other and to me and got them to agree to be photographed together touching each other. A lot of my work has been engaging with people of all different classes, ages, races, and locales. I’m interested in exploring types of people and places somewhat neglected by more mainstream America. Most of the long-term projects I’ve worked on were about places like Newark, New Jersey, or Fall River, Massachusetts. I also did a “See America by Bus” kind of tour, photographing Greyhound stations.”
Intimacy: “I think intimacy is really important to my work and how viewers respond to it. Hopefully they feel the intimacy, directness, and engagement these moments capture between the subjects and myself and the subjects and my camera. I want an impactful moment that brings viewers into being with the people photographed, which is an important part of portraiture. I’m not looking for put-on smiles because that can be a barrier to intimacy. I’m looking for something a little deeper and more engaged between photographer, subjects, and viewers.”
Vulnerability: “This comes up most in my Touching Strangers work, and I think it’s tied to intimacy. I haven’t given vulnerability as much thought as intimacy, but I will say that when someone has agreed to be photographed touching someone they’ve never met before, they’ve certainly made themselves vulnerable by crossing a sort of unspoken barrier. It’s a kind of intimacy I think is beautiful, and for me has resulted in some very powerful images. I’ll add that vulnerability is tricky because it can be used in an exploitative way. It’s something that needs to be approached with some caution.”
Touch: “Touch is big. It connects to intimacy, and it’s important in my own life. When I was young in Chicago, I went to the gay cruising spots and so badly wanted to be touched, not just physically but emotionally. It seemed so unavailable to me. I think I’ve carried those needs into my photography in Touching Strangers.”
Ambiguity: “It’s a good word to apply both to portrait and landscape photography. It allows viewers to fill in the blanks and project a little bit of their own stories into the pictures.”
Manhattan: “Manhattan is home. It’s chaotic, energetic, evolving. It embodies themes of class, human diversity, and architectural grandeur and diversity. It’s full of history, it’s rich, it’s unique, it’s spectacular. I’ve captured some of my feelings about Manhattan in Manhattan Sundays.”
AIDS: “I came out when I was young, in my teens. The AIDS crisis was at its height, with so many deaths happening every day, especially in New York, which was an epicenter of the crisis. A few years later my parents were hesitant about sending me to New York, which is where I wanted to go to college. I was fearful too, but couldn’t wait to come here. Where did I go first in the city? To an ACT UP meeting, because I knew I could find gay men there. I yearned to meet somebody. When I found out about the gay clubs, I also started clubbing and partying. But I was a little hesitant about that. I yearned to be around gay men, but it was a scary time. Then I seroconverted in 1996. It freaked me out, but I was lucky because that year was when the protease inhibitors came along. I’ve been on combination therapy for many years, with no consequential side effects. I have an undetectable viral load, and have had no illnesses related to immune problems. Like I said, I’ve been lucky. For the last twenty years I’ve been a member of the organization called Visual AIDS, which supports artists living with HIV/AIDS. I’m a member of the organization’s Artist+ Archive, and actively involved as a contributor and fundraiser. From my perspective, I think the best way I can contribute to the crisis is being open about my condition and helping to raise awareness about the disease.”
One last comment: If one had to choose a single word to describe Richard Renaldi’s work, it would be “inclusive.” In his photography he has sought to reach out, touch, and bring together people, places, and communities of all different backgrounds and locations. In other words, he has helped to raise awareness not just about HIV/AIDS, but about what it means to be part of the larger human community.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.