As a New Yorker forced to touch strangers almost anytime I find myself on the subway at rush hour, I find it hard to romanticize the premise behind Richard Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers” exhibition which opened last week at the Aperture Foundation Gallery in Chelsea. The exhibition is comprised of photographs of strangers that Mr. Renaldi has taken in towns and cities across America since 2007. Finding people on the street, themselves strangers to each other, Mr. Renaldi asked them to physically interact while posing together for a portrait. The wall text for the exhibit claims, “Renaldi creates spontaneous and fleeting relationships between strangers for the camera… the resulting photographs are moving and provocative, and raise profound questions about the possibilities for positive human connection in a diverse society.” Taken with a large format 8-by-10-inch view camera, the color photographs are lush and crisp in detail, but they come off completely forced, devoid of emotional resonance, and in turn, creepy. The project’s conceit is an easily summarized gimmick. The supposed intimacy that is created reads as entirely superficial or completely absent.
Perhaps the most unsettling photograph on view is “Sonia, Zach, Raekwon, and Antonio, 2011,Tampa, FL,” in which a black mother, her two young boys, and a young white man sit on an unmade bed in a hotel room. The man has his arms around the woman, and one of her children sits on his lap. The four of them stare calmly straight into the camera, but the intimacy immediately reads as entirely affected, and involving the two young children (one has a pacifier in their mouth) in a fictional family portrait seems misguided.
According the the 2010 census, nationally, interracial or interethnic opposite-sex married couple households grew by 28 percent over the decade to a total of 10 percent. The numbers are even higher for opposite-sex unmarried partners and same-sex unmarried partners, at 18 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Surely, Mr. Renaldi could have found real interracial couples to pose for him, and given his photographs a true sense of intimacy, rather than one that comes off completely flat and unaffecting. ‘The positive human connections in a diverse society,” Mr. Renaldi seeks to enact are already real and quite prevalent in our society. It’s hard to see the point of forcing a simulacrum of something that already exists. At best his images are pointless; at worst they trivialize real human love and intimacy.
The exhibition for “Touching Strangers” coincides with the publication of a book of the same name of his work from the series. Aperture Foundation started their first ever Kickstarter campaign last year to cover the costs. Their description on that site for the project goes even further in its language, saying “the images …[cross] out of the zones of safe physical intimacy with strangers and into deep emotional landscapes never photographed before.” Somehow this rang true with the nearly 900 backers who together pledged over $80,000 towards the publication of his book. But anyone familiar with the history of photography would know this statement is blatantly false. What about the work of Robert Frank, Sally Mann or Nan Goldin? The problem with this statement is that deep emotional landscapes do not occur between strangers, but between friends, lovers, and family members. The work of Sally Mann and Nan Goldin is so affecting because the intimacies documented in them are real. The works in “Touching Strangers” don’t have a fraction of the poignancy of their work, or the complexity.
If you want to purchase a truly affecting book of photography, pick up instead from Aperture’s own catalogue, Golden’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” or “RFK” by Paul Fusco. More in line with Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” than the work of Mann or Goldin, “RFK” is composed of photographs Fusco took of thousands of Americans, white, black, and brown standing alongside railroad tracks across the country waiting for the body of the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy to pass by on its way to Washington DC. It’s hard nowadays to imagine any politician’s death eliciting that kind of overwhelming show of respect and sympathy, and the images in the book are truly moving in a way that Mr. Renandi’s don’t even come close to approaching.
“Touching Strangers” photographs by Richard Renaldi runs through May 15, 2014 at the Aperture Foundation Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, 4th Floor, New York, NY. There will be an artist talk and book signing Wednesday, April 16 at 6:30 p.m.