From 2007 to 2013, New York–based photographer Richard Renaldi approached strangers across the United States and asked them to pose together, close, as if they were friends or lovers.
“I wanted to know what would happen if I asked my subjects to reach through and beyond their taboos,” Renaldi writes in Touching Strangers, a book of his photographs released this month by Aperture. “I wanted to observe the physical vocabulary that would emerge when a photographer directs strangers who have been approached randomly on the street, and who have been introduced to each other only moments before, to touch each other’s bodies.”
The portraits range from those you could mistake for family photographs to those that have an awkward wariness, with most falling somewhere in between. In the book, Renaldi cites both shaking hands with strangers at church on Sunday and picking up older men at the age of 14 in Chicago as leading to his interest in breaking the physical boundaries between people, as well as giving him the confidence to ask strangers to participate in the potentially uncomfortable project. To make the whole task a bit more complicated, Renaldi took each of the Touching Strangers photographs with a bulky, 8×10 large-format camera. (You can see him in action with his old timey camera in this video.)
The book from Aperture, supported through a Kickstarter campaign last year, has a coinciding exhibition at Aperture Gallery in Chelsea, where 35 of Renaldi’s pictures are on view. If you have the street photography swagger, you can even submit your own shot of stranger interaction with the #TouchingStrangers hashtag on Instagram and Twitter; Renadi will be selecting some for the show.
Much of Renaldi’s previous work has been in serendipitous portraiture, capturing moments like people thrown together through the mass transportation of the bus or, in his Figure and Ground series, finding people in parts of the country he was unfamiliar with, such as bull riders and members of the Sioux nation. While those photographs definitely have moments of human interaction, they’re quite different than staging these temporary relationships. And the United States is a very hands-off country in terms of physical interactions between all but the closest of people (compared to countries like France, where meeting each and every person often requires kissing on the cheeks up to four times).
Renaldi is far from the first artist to experiment with the physical separation between us — for example, there’s Jiří Kovanda, who purposefully collided with strangers on sidewalks in the 1970s — but his photographic portraits have a strangeness to them that keeps you looking. The book’s cover portrait, a girl posing with a police officer who holds his arms around her shoulders, has an ambiguous mix of menace and closeness that wavers back and forth with a glance. Sure, the book could probably lose the Walt Whitman “To a Stranger” poem at the beginning, which is much more about the flights of intimate fantasy you might mentally take with a beautiful stranger (Whitman was always blissfully open about our lack of internal restraint), and the blurb from its own introduction by author Teju Coleon on the back cover. Yet, overall, the collection has a captivating strangeness to it that reveals the sensitivity we have about each other’s skin.
Touching Strangers by Richard Renaldi is available starting on April 30 from Aperture. Renaldi’s photographs are on view at Aperture Gallery (547 West 27th Street, 4th floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 15.