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Strange Love—Richard Renaldi Captures Intimate Moments With Strangers

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 14, 2014 7:00PM

Tari, Shawn and Summer, Los Angeles, 2012 (Photo credit: Richard Renaldi, used with permission)

Coaxing two complete strangers to pose with each other is cheeky enough, but what about inviting them to touch each other? Working on the street with a large format 8-by-10-inch view camera, photographer Richard Renaldi—a Chicago native currently based in New York City—creates spontaneous and fleeting relationships between strangers, often pushing his subjects beyond their comfort levels. The series, Touching Strangers, is now published in book form with support from a Kickstarter campaign launched last year, and the attention from a wide range of media including CBS News and the New York Times.

“I used to look at people waiting at a stop light together, and I would be drawn to the space between them and how they are connected,” explained Renaldi, 46, who grew up in Lincoln Park. “I always knew I wanted to [photograph] sometime like that.”

Touching Strangers is the culmination of a seven-year portraiture project and includes photographs made as recently as 2013, in Albuquerque, Chicago, New York City, and Southern California.

Chicagoist turned the camera around, in a manner of speaking, to capture the photographer’s thoughts on posing his subjects in intimate scenes and how the artist’s sexuality has influenced his work.

Chicagoist: Take us back to the first couple of times you asked strangers to touch each other in a public space. How did you muster up the courage to approach your subjects?

Richard Renaldi: I was really apprehensive, nervous, afraid of rejection—street portraitists are always presented with that potential for rejection. I was afraid people might think I was crazy. I didn’t know that I had the power as an artist to ask for what I wanted and to actually get it. It’s a pretty great discovery.

C: Gay men are not typically shy about touching strangers, especially when you consider the proliferation of hook-up apps and so on available right now. Talk about how your experience as an openly gay man helps inform your work especially with this series of portraits.

RR: As a young, gay kid in Chicago, I was really very bold, very courageous. When I was 15, I would go to all the cruising spots in Chicago looking to hook-up. I often was the aggressor, meeting men twice my age, and while I was looking for, obviously, a sexual thrill, I was also yearning for friendship. Men would take me home, and afterwards, they sometimes touched me tenderly, affectionately. I learned at young age—not only about palpable desire—but of love between strangers, no matter how brief. I bring that into the work, especially the later portraits. I really wanted to make the point that there are these other realms of connection that we can create with complete strangers.

C: Was it a challenge to find the “right pairing” for each portrait?

RR: That is such a funny term, the “right pair,” it’s all so much more random than that. A big part of the experience is serendipity, with person A and person B in that space and at that time, and I was there and making one of these pictures, and it just happens.

C: So, your photographs are all completely spontaneous and of-the-moment?

RR: Always. There is some times a conscious effort to make pairings, to make certain type of characters. I’m partly looking for people who are visually interesting or striking in some way, and who are photographically beautiful. I have a very broad definition of beauty—it could be any type of person, but they typically have some quality that I find interesting. Once I spent hours at the Lincoln Memorial trying to cast the picture, and that was very challenging because the people I wanted weren’t showing up. I have a hard time photographing tourists.

Julie and Xavier, Chicago, 2007 (Photo credit: Richard Renaldi, used with permission)

C: Five portraits in Touching Strangers were shot in Chicago, including a striking image of a new bride on the Chicago lakefront. How did this picture come together?

RR: I just happened to be in the park making a portrait of my friend Matt, and I saw this wedding party. They were doing their wedding photos, probably between the wedding and the reception, and I immediately thought about asking the bride to collaborate. Oh my God—I hemmed and hawed because I knew that I would interrupt their special day. It took a lot of mental courage for me to go and ask, and when I did, her bridesmaids gave me the stink eye. But Julie, the bride, listened to my spiel, and she was quick to respond—‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ I went running around the park and that’s when I saw Xavier walking down the path, looking cheerful. I thought he would be great, but I didn’t put the similarities together until much later—his pants have embroidery as does her dress; his ‘do-rag was a great compliment to Julie’s veil. The funny thing is the wedding photographer took pictures of me taking these pictures which is kind of meta.

C: How did you figure out which portraits to include in the book version of Touching Strangers?

RR: I did 175 set-ups and there are 73 images in the book. I knew that I didn’t want there to be more than 100 in the book, because that is a lot of portraits and I didn’t want [the experience] to be tedious.

I included just the ones that I knew really worked, the successful pairings. Sometimes you know right away if an image is amazing or if it sucks. Sometimes, it’s not immediately clear—sometimes the good ones rise to the surface over time.

C: Were there any pairings you didn’t have the opportunity to photograph for the series?

RR: Yeah. (He pauses to check the list on his phone). A transgendered person; a mentally disabled person; a blind person; a prostitute—although how would you know unless you asked? (Laughs). A sikh. There are also certain backgrounds I wanted to do too. I wanted to do one in an elevator, and I never got around to doing that, and I wanted to do one in someone’s office.

Andrea and Lillie, 2013, Illinois. (Photo credit: Richard Renaldi, used with permission.)

C: What do you want people to take away with them after viewing these portraits, Richard?

RR: That’s a tough one. I do think people have an emotional response to the work, which is kind of nice. So much art right now is esoteric, and is a conversation held solely among the creatives themselves, which is very grad school culture, with everyone speaking the same private language, and this frustrating to me. So, I’m glad I’ve created something that seems to have an appeal outside of that.

Touching Strangers is available for sale here.

The Touching Strangers exhibition will be on view at Aperture Gallery in New York, April 3- May 15, 2014.

Manhattan Sunday—Mr. Renaldi’s current project—captures the people he finds on the street at the break of day—the nightclubbers, street cleaners, and prostitutes.