Richard Renaldi on Projects and People

We’re thrilled to introduce Richard Renaldi, 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and the guest juror for this year’s edition of ONWARD Compé, our annual international photography competition and educational opportunity! Who better to take the helm of the competition than an internationally regarded photographer whose projects have garnered critical and commercial praise for years? We sat down with Richard to talk about all things project related, and hope you’ll feel inspired to kickstart your editing and submit from your best project! – ONWARD Editor

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ONWARD: You’ve worked on a handful of highly-regarded projects over the years like Fall River Boys, See America By Bus, and more recently Touching Strangers. Can you describe your process of ideation for these?

Richard Renaldi: Each project has its own nemesis. For me, the process of creating a body of work often starts with a desire to explore a place, theme or idea. There isn’t always one reason why a concept grows into a long-term body of work. As I focus on a project, themes often emerge that weren’t part of my initial thinking. Part of the process is giving work the time for those themes to materialize. Knowing when to abandon an uninspired idea is as much a part of this process as being able to identify when a project has the potential to be strong. What originally draws me to a project often has something to do with my own story and history. I try to find a point of kinship or connection between myself and the subjects or ideas I have focused on.


Cheyene Charlie and Omarian, 2014, from Touching Strangers ©Richard Renaldi

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In the case of Fall River Boys, it was my attraction to adolescent machismo that drew me to make a portrait of the town; in See America By Bus, my childhood misconceptions about bus stations as seedy dangerous places. In Touching Strangers, I was interested in exploring the idea of body language and affection between strangers. I wanted to know what would happen if I asked strangers to step outside of their comfort zones and subject themselves to the same potential for rejection that I experienced as a street portraitist. Later it became clear to me that I was subverting societal codes based on personal experience with promiscuous sexual behavior and the associated boundary crossing.


Byron; Fargo, ND 2006 (Wilmington, DE to Mecca, Saudi Arabia) from See America by Bus. ©Richard Renaldi

ONWARD: Working on multiple personal projects and professional assignments can be straining–how do you keep yourself committed to long-term projects?

RR: In the past I worked on multiple projects at once. I suspect it kept me on my toes to task myself with having multiple bodies of work going at the same time, and it suited my innately high level of energy. In the past couple of years I have started to focus more intensely on only one or two projects. The commitment to a project also comes from discipline; forcing oneself to work on something even though there was some pain involved in the process of creating the work. It is also important to respect the work and give it the time and attention that it deserves.

ONWARD: It’s easy to get so attached to a body of work that you don’t know how to stop. How do you know when a body of work is complete?

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RR: This is unique for every project and there are cues as to when you are nearing completion that emerge within each series. This also depends on what you are working towards. I imagine some of my projects (hopefully) becoming books. When making a book it is important for me to have all the pieces to put in place. I think about the structure and try to keep hitting all the parts until I feel like I have done the best I can do. I also think it’s important to know when to put something to rest, or take a break from it. One self-portrait project I am doing is partially time-based, so I don’t imagine completing it until I reach old age.


Alamogordo, New Mexico, 2013 from Hotel Room Portraits. ©Richard Renaldi

ONWARD: It’s always important to follow your own ideas, but how important are critiques and outside opinions while working on projects?

RR:Critiques are certainly important. My own personal experience is to share my work with friends and colleagues and seek their advice.

ONWARD: You worked at great length on each of these projects and created a whole lot of pictures. How do you select final images to include in a series?

RR:I usually have an initial response to the strength or weakness of the image and give the photograph a star rating. As time progresses I review the images, and they either keep their rank or are demoted/promoted until I feel certain that I have the strongest possible suite of images. I also break down the different aspects of a project and group them by subject, such as portrait, landscape, still life, etc. This enables me to evaluate what I need to work harder on and what type of images I need to be looking for. When a project is ready to publish, I will do another review and reconsider things that may have been overlooked to ascertain as to whether those images might fill an important gap, or are needed in the structure of making a book.


Javier and Omar, 2004, from Fall River Boys. ©Richard Renaldi

ONWARD: How did the Touching Strangers idea come to you?

RR: In 2004 I began a series of portraits titled See America By Bus. I traveled to Greyhound stations across the United States documenting the grueling subculture of transcontinental bus travel. It was on the long, communal benches in these Greyhound stations that I first confronted the unusual circumstance of asking people who were strangers to each other to pose together in one of my portraits. The challenge of coordinating two or more strangers in the same image appealed to me. In thinking about how I could expand on that idea, I thought of this: What would happen if I asked people to touch one another? That question became the genesis of Touching Strangers. Touching Strangers was, in a sense, an evolution of my practice of making individual portraits. What would it look like if I attempted to mix and/or match my subjects?


Left: Will and Becky, 2014. Right: Aaron and Ava, 2014, from Touching Strangers. ©Richard Renaldi

ONWARD: What was your thought process when matching subjects? Did you have a certain message to convey?

RR: There was a conscious effort on my part to catalogue the vast array of races, classes and types of characters that comprise a portrait of contemporary America, but there was just as much left up to chance and serendipity throughout the process of making this work. Occasionally the narratives worked out to read as these were real couples or real families, and I liked those situations just as much as the pairings that read as uncommon or opposite.

ONWARD: What did this project teach you about people and how they interact, and what did you learn about yourself in the process?

RR: I think Touching Strangers taught me that I possessed the ability to ask complete and total strangers to do something extraordinary for me and my camera. It has made me a much more confident portraitist and I have a clearer sense that strangers are willing to collaborate with me in my art-making process. I perceive it as a gift that a total stranger can open himself or herself to me, and submit to my direction. How cool and lovely is that?


East Broadway, 2010, from Manhattan Sunday. ©Richard Renaldi

ONWARD: After the successes of your previous work, what do you plan to work on during your fellowship?

RR: The project I am planning to work on during my fellowship is titled Manhattan Sunday. Manhattan Sunday is a series of portraits, still lifes and cityscapes made with an 8×10 view camera in the hours just before and after dawn. The parameters of the project, as the title suggests, restrict the locations and time to Manhattan on Sunday mornings. Sunday mornings at daybreak offer a transformation of Manhattan from the known world into a dreamscape of characters acting out their fantasies on a grand empty stage. I find myself cruising the streets of Manhattan with my 8×10 camera, seeking out night revelers, circuit boys, prostitutes, garbage collectors and drunks: the workers and worshipers of the night as they find their way home, exhausted or exhilarated, steeled for a new day.

About ONWARD Compé ’16
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