Touching Strangers and other heart tugging projects

I’ve come late to the Richard Renaldi party, but I’m here now, thanks to my friend Marcia Hohler. Renaldi is a New York based photographer whose recent projects include an extraordinary series, soon to be an Aperture book, called Touching Strangers. Let’s start with an image from that project:

ImageBefore Renaldi introduced this trio on the street, they were strangers, to each other and to him. He got each to consent to this exercise, then brought them together and posed them. Photo after photo, the results are stunning. Taken together, the project photographs are deeply moving, even soul-changing.

It’s always fun to watch little animals of different species playing with each other in Wimp videos (I mean this seriously — I click on these as eagerly as the next kitty-smitten fangirl). But these photos are different — a dimension beyond the Wimp genre. In this apocalyptic moment, when bad people are hijacking the ship of state and threatening our children’s survival, these images offer hope. They are not JUST beautiful. They carry stories, both the stories that we invent behind these photos without prewritten narratives, and the stories that form themselves from the moments that preceded the photo and the moments afterward.

For this project, and many others, Renaldi works with a large format camera. That hulking, lovely monster really gives the lie to the notion that street photography needs to be carried out with stealth and silent, inconspicuous cameras. This practice moves to the other extreme to create confidence. Who on earth brings a big wooden box on a tripod to a New York City playground? Here is a wonderful video of Renaldi at work:

In this CBS video you can see Renaldi persuading and posing his subjects. (I like Steve Hartman’s narration here, too, and Renaldi’s own characterization of these fleeting relationships as “lovely” — yes, one of my own favorite words.) Here is another video, this one from the successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the Aperture book:

OK, so here’s the other thing. As a photographer on a budget, like pretty much every photographer I know of except Annie Leibovitz, who has been from time to time on the brink of bankruptcy, I am thinking well, do I have to give up my dreams of photographic eloquence until I can afford a large format camera? And the answer is apparently no — good news and bad news for me. Renaldi also makes great images with his iPhone. (See the archive section of his web page, here. Also see his Instagram page, here.

So this blog entry once again addresses my preoccupation with several overlapping themes: changing the world through photographs, wandering the streets with a camera, and the intersections of our private and public lives and bodies. Though Renaldi may not be¬†more of a hero than my other idols spotlighted here, he does something different — akin to and even beyond the street photographers who get gangs of kids to pose for them. He gets strangers to touch each other, and to come away — and allow his viewers to come away — feeling like (in the apt words of Steve Hartman) “it’s Thanksgiving at Aunt Margaret’s.”

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