Touching Strangers / This Grand Show

By Jean Dykstra, May 4, 2014

Richard Renaldi, Nathan and Robyn, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 2012. Courtesy Aperture Gallery

Like many of us, I have ongoing relationships with people I’ve never actually met. In some cases, I’ve never even spoken to them on the phone; we communicate via email or through Facebook. In this age of technologically mediated relationships, even close friends do much of their chatting electronically. Perhaps this is why Richard Renaldi’s series Touching Strangers has struck such a nerve. Or why the YouTube video of 20 strangers kissing went viral. Or why Tanja Hollander embarked on a mission to visit and photograph all of her Facebook friends, calling her project Are You Really My Friend? There is something perplexing, and not all that fulfilling, about the physical isolation of contemporary life. A recent New York Times article (illustrated with Renaldi’s photographs) reported on the benefits of simply making eye contact with a stranger and the positive feelings generated by having a brief conversation with a seatmate on a train. 

Renaldi's photographs go a bit further than eye contact: in a project he’s been working on since 2007, he asks two people, strangers to each other, to pose with one another as if they knew each other intimately – embracing, holding hands, standing cheek to cheek. In some cases, it’s hard to imagine the subjects aren’t friends or lovers, and in others, it’s easy to see the awkwardness. Some images convey a sense of ease and affection – Donna and Donna, Craig, Colorado, for instance, who look like a mother and daughter meeting for lunch – where others radiate wariness – Heather and Johnny, in which Heather seems to pull slightly away from her rumpled partner. Still other photographs make us uneasy because of what we might project: there’s something discomfiting in the uniformed policeman with his arms around a teenage girl in cut-off shorts. Renaldi’s staged portraits, of course, are all about what we read into them, and whether we see affection or revulsion or find ourselves longing for simple human contact. After a successful Kickstarter campaign that resulted in a book, as well as a barrage of media coverage, the exhibition is at Aperture Gallery through May 15, after which it travels to the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle.

Richard Renaldi, Igloo, Homer, Alaska, 2008. Courtesy Bonni Benrubi Gallery

While Touching Strangers is a largely urban project, Renaldi’s work at Bonni Benbrubi Gallery, This Grand Show, through June 7, is an exploration of the American landscape inspired by 19th-century naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir. These are not the majestic scenes of Timothy O’Sullivan, though, but vistas on the verge of disappearing or objects cast aside: an abandoned blue ice-cream truck in Alaska that once sold Igloo Ice Creams, or a crushed silo in Electra, Texas, looking about as sturdy and resilient as a tin can. Nothing lasts, this show suggests, including an elaborate sand castle on the beach in Miami, soon to be washed away by the tide. Directly across the gallery from the sand castle hangs a photograph of Monument Valley in Utah, similar in composition and color. By association, it suggests the ephemerality of even so durable a landscape.