Richard Renaldi captivates with black-and-white photos of people on the edges of society.
The first thing you notice about the subjects of “Fall River Boys” is how vulnerable they seem. The young men of Fall River, Mass., depicted in Richard Renaldi’s black-and-white photos at Sol Mednick Gallery as part of this week’s Equality Forum, might be neighborhood thugs. But Thomas, Trevor, Kevin, Craig and the rest—with their baggy pants, bandanas, piercings and cigarettes—bare their souls for Renaldi and pose with no semblance of attitude or pretense.
Renaldi is an extraordinary street photographer. In a field known for speedy encounters, he embraces the slow-cooked approach, using an old-fashioned mahogany viewfinder. He prefers pricey 8-by-10 negatives (black and white at $4-$5 each; color at $8.50-$9 each) and the long exposure they require—and the exquisite detail they produce. With the camera on a tripod and a black cloth over his head to keep the light out, Renaldi at work in 2010 is a flash from the past, a 19th-century anomaly. At a time when almost everybody has a camera phone, Renaldi’s old-fashioned setup capitalizes on the lure of the dimly imagined past.
PW spoke with the artist last week about his unusually in-depth portraits and methods. The New York University photography grad is imbued with brazenness from his mother, who apparently would routinely approach total strangers and “talk their ear off.”
Young people today might be more likely to flip you the finger than let you take their picture. So how does Renaldi get them to pose for him? And how does he bond with them so that they let their guard down and unmask themselves so completely? “It’s a question photographers ask me all the time … how do you do it? It’s a great mystery,” he says.
Renaldi introduces himself to his subjects as a photographer working on a project. He sometimes brings one of his published books to show them and promises to send a print. Hopefully, this is enough to prove his intentions.
But even if they could convince the subjects to participate, not every photographer could get these soulful shots. Something about Renaldi’s geeky friendliness and his all-too-human fear of being rejected makes an empathetic connection between the subject and artist.
“Of course, I’m a little anxious. It’s like asking someone on a date,” he says, adding that he’s also anxious about setting up the shot, something he fusses with under the blanket to get right.
Renaldi’s works are political. He’s not photographing the nouveau riche or old-moneyed Main Liners. He seeks out those at the edges of society. Previous work mined the bus stations and rural byways of America and gay meeting places in New York. The “Fall River Boys,” citizens of a once-prosperous, now post-industrial city, celebrate these dead-end kids, who are icons of the downwardly mobile. Some of the most poignant “Fall River” shots involve two friends leaning on each other. In shots like these, body language turns metaphorical and touch is exquisitely felt. Jonathan leaning on the small but solid William, for example, is both literal and metaphorical as friends who need each other. Trevor’s awkwardly placed arm over small Thomas’ shoulder, likewise, connotes the sheltering support one has for the other.
“Touching Strangers” is Renaldi’s newest project, one that brings strangers together to touch each other (everything from hands touching arms to all-out bear hugs) before the artist’s camera. He’s photographed all over the country and what’s captured by that project, as in the “Fall River” photos, is the artist’s warm embrace of humanity.
“Fall River Boys”
Thurs., April 29
Through May 2
211 S. Broad St., 15th fl.
Efforts are under way to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
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Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2