interview with fine-art photographer Richard Renaldi for PDN, 2006
By Kristina Feliciano
If first impressions are the most important ones, then Richard Renaldi can count himself truly fortunate. Aperture has just published a 156-page monograph of his work, Figure and Ground, that is as stunning a showcase and an introduction as any photographer could hope for.
The book is presented as a journey across the country, from east to west, that encompasses seven years’ worth of portraits and landscapes, all of them taken with a Wisner 8 x 10 view camera. The pages are populated by all kinds of people: athletes, bus travelers, businesspeople, lesbians, punk kids, a hunter, a 19-year-old cowboy-hat salesman (who started up a conversation with Renaldi on Richard Avedon). Some of them clearly have money, while others are of the Nickel and Dimed demographic.
In most cases, his subjects are alone in the frame, a compositional decision that can spark a sense of wistfulness or isolation—starting with the cover, which features a young woman named Christine, of Fresno, California, dressed in fashionable black and carrying a purse that reads “New York.” She’s holding a rose and looking uncertainly over her shoulder at us. People have asked the New York City-based shooter if his intention is to be wistful or sad, but he tells them he simply wants the focus to be on the one person; he wants us to see what he sees. “They’re all beautiful, and there’s something unique about them,” he says of his subjects.
Renaldi, who was included in the inaugural ICP Triennial, in 2003, and whose work will be exhibited at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York at the end of January, says he shoots who he is drawn to. That evidently means he’s drawn to a person’s humanity, and having found it, he renders portraits that are appreciative without being heroic. “I think [his portraits] are incredibly subtle and restrained in a lot of ways,” says Lesley Martin, his editor at Aperture.
Because of Renaldi’s choice of equipment—the 8 x 10 calls for patience on the part of both photographer and sitter—his subjects are nearly as contemplative about doing the portrait as he is, and it shows in their face. “There’s a formalness to being photographed with the view camera,” he notes.
The consciousness of their participation is matched by Renaldi’s specifically selected environments, which contain striking colors: the acid-yellow wall that sets off the tawny skin and red shirt of Jaime in Denver; the red painted seat that picks up the cherry-colored lipstick worn by Latasha in Wichita Falls, Texas; the wide black-and-white stripes behind Andre in Newark, New Jersey. Renaldi usually “casts” his subject first, and then together they go in search of a location, which can entail walking around the corner or taking a short drive.
Renaldi, who is 38, has been shooting since the ’80s. He studied photography at NYU and has worked at Magnum and as a photo researcher. His first attempt at a photo project was in 1997, when he decided to document the scene at Pier 45 in the West Village, a Hudson River hangout for gay men. “I learned the discipline of going to a place over and over again,” he recalls.
The next year, Renaldi decided to try freelancing and has since made his living as a photographer, mostly shooting editorial, including for Harper’s Bazaar, Los Angeles Magazine, and Jane. And it looks like Figure and Ground might expand his commercial horizons; since the book was published, he’s had calls from Modern Painters and Art and Auction.
1998 was also the year Renaldi began shooting with an 8 x 10; his first series centered on Manhattan’s posh Madison Avenue. Then—inspired by the work of large-format photographers such as August Sander and his “People of the Twentieth Century” project—he did a series on blue-collar workers and has since produced such projects as including “Fresno,” “Bus Travellers,” “Newark,” “L.A. Street,” and “Great Plains.”
Notably, the photos in Figure and Ground were not made with a trans-America motif in mind; Renaldi’s initial goal was to publish a book on “Fall River Boys,” a black-and-white essay centering on an economically depressed Massachusetts town. He first sent the photos to a friend of a friend at DAP, who thought it could work for Aperture and passed it on to Martin. Renaldi’s name was familiar to Martin; she had included his work in a 2002 traveling exhibition called “Pandemic: Facing AIDS.” She reviewed his other photos (Renaldi enthusiastically maintains a thorough website, www.renaldi.com, that includes all of his projects) and, along with her colleagues, concluded that Aperture should publish a book of his work.
“I was impressed by the scope of the material and the way in which he’s able to bring these people into a very unique type of encounter with the viewer,” says Martin. “It was just a sense here [at Aperture] that this was something that may not be the most cutting-edge, avant-garde body of work but that it really is genuine and touching.”
But she was not of the opinion that “Fall River Boys” should be how Richard Renaldi would be introduced to the world at large. Instead, his first step needed to be a wider-ranging, semi-career-spanning volume. “I think his color palette is luminous and beautiful, and I thought that would be the best way to open a door,” explains Martin, who also suggested including some of his landscapes to convey “a sense of motion.”
Accustomed to thinking of his projects as discrete entities, Renaldi initially resisted the idea of breaking them up and combining them. “It took a little bit of letting go of that and letting my ego be put aside,” he says.
One thing that both Renaldi and Martin readily agreed on: Narrowing down the images from so many bodies of work—there were 26 posted at his site at last count—was difficult. “But this was really supposed to be a thumbnail sketch, an overview of the best,” notes Martin. “There’s still a lot more to come out of each series.”