Jonathan Blaustein: I wanted to start out talking to you about Chicago, because you’re from there, and I know very little about the place.
But the more looked at your website, I wonder if you belong anywhere? Do you live out of a suitcase?
Richard Renaldi: No. You were looking at the Hotel Room pictures, I imagine. And maybe some of the “Crossing” project. I do travel a lot, but that project, (The Hotel Room portraits,) is 16 years worth of travel.
Some of it has been for work, and my partner and I are definitely travelers, not tourists, so we like to do some adventuring. But this year I do feel like I have been living out of a suitcase, because of being on the “Touching Strangers” train. I’ve been all over, promoting the book, exhibitions, and talks.
Home is New York, and North Eastern Pennsylvania. I did grow up in Chicago, but I left at 18 to go to school here in New York at NYU. I haven’t lived in Chicago since. I only go back to visit the family.
JB: You mentioned your partner, Seth, and the “Hotel Room Portraits” series, which most people probably don’t know about, features the two of you on at least 4 continents, by my count, perhaps more. There is so much to talk about here, and we’ll try to cover all of it. But you’ve referred to Seth as your partner, and given all the hubbub in the last couple of years, are you guys married, or are you going to get married?
RR: We’re not married, and we’ll probably eventually get married. But probably we’ll just do a City Hall thing, and then maybe have a party. I don’t see myself exchanging vows in a public declaration of our love.
But our commitment to each other is there, sixteen years together and the proof is in the pudding. I could say boyfriend. I like that word. But he’s not such a boy anymore, and boyfriend doesn’t necessarily describe the graying aspect. (laughs.)
Part of the intention of that project is also quantity. We started out a little half-assed about the discipline, surrounding when we would travel and take a picture. So the first few years, there are actually some that are missing.
When I got a better SLR camera and lens, around 2007, and started shooting digitally, I started thinking about the project more, we’ve been fastidious that every single time we go somewhere, we have to do one. Even if I don’t really want to do it, we always make sure we make a portrait.
As you can see, they run the gamut from pretty dumpy hotels to fancy. It’s important that there’s a class component to the work.
There is a range, from trashy motels to corporate midrange ones, and then the really fancy ones. Most of those were on a job I did for Microsoft, where I went to 18 countries, in 2007.
But also, there’s an architectural element. And there are cultural markers too. It becomes not just a portrait of us, and our intimacy, our aging, the transformation of our bodies, and my ink. By the design, and the interior spaces of these different rooms, you can tell something about the place.
There’s a lot there to keep it going. Layers to the work, which I find exciting.
JB: All I kept asking myself, which you already kind of answered, was how the hell can these guys afford to travel to this many countries on such a consistent basis? But I’m guessing from your answer, when you said you did a job for Microsoft, that you also do commercial work. Which I didn’t know.
RR: Not so much recently. But I have had some privileges, and used those as an opportunity to photograph and travel. I was fortunate to not be grounded to one place and having to always worry about my financial security. I’ve been able to up and go, and spend weeks at a time traveling through South East Asia.
Some of those trips were after the Microsoft job. We were in Taiwan, and went onwards afterwards. Last year, I went to print my book in Hong Kong, and we were going to take a trip to Thailand, but there was a coup. So I met Seth in Morocco.
JB: I saw that. And you were in Southern Spain too this year. And Canada.
RR: Yeah, we just drove up to Canada. I always wanted to see the Maritimes. I was teaching in Portland for a week, so Seth came up and met me. We met some friends and also went to an island in Maine called Vinyl Haven.
A lot of it is combined with work, or visiting family. We just like to travel.
RR: We try to do one big trip a year. We used to put our place on Airbnb, so when we went to Bolivia, Chile and Easter Island, that basically paid for the whole trip, renting our New York City apartment.
JB: I have a 7 year old. It was his birthday yesterday. When I told him I was going to interview you, he said I should ask you why the people had to be touching?
RR: What’s your son’s name?
RR: Theo? I like that name. Well, they had to touch because the concept was about connecting two strangers in a photograph. I’d been doing single portraits for many years, and I was shooting “See America By Bus,” about the people traveling across the country on Greyhound buses.
That was the first experience where I was making large format work. Consensual portraits of two people that didn’t know each other, in the same space. It added this new layer of complexity and challenge to making a portrait.
I had to get the permission and approval of two different sets of people to be in a picture together. And I really liked that, and thought there was something really rich there.
I was interested in the space between people, like in they city. You see a group of people, clustered together, and in that moment and space in time, they’re connected. Standing at a light, waiting to cross the street. Everyone looks like they’re together, because they’re in a group.
But they’re not. They don’t know each other. I wanted to link them.
Also, there was this desire to catalog, in the way August Sander catalogued people. I had this impulse to do that, but to mix and match. To take different types of people and put them together.
As the project progressed, I became as interested in people who looked like they belonged together. Similar types.
But I think the reason why they had to touch, to answer Theo’s question, is that I was really curious what the body language would look like. As I write in the essay, what would the physical vocabulary look like, when someone asks two strangers to do that.
JB: I think part of what people respond to is the disconnect between the concept and the reality. Everything looks so natural. Until you know what’s going on, you would never guess.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but its so transgressive, to touch strangers. Theo and I were in Denver a few weeks ago. In a coffee shop.
There was a guy, sitting at a table by himself, drawing. He had all these fancy colored pencils. Theo will talk to anybody, he’s got a very open personality, so he walks up to the guy and starts asking about his pictures. Then, he put his hand on the guy’s forearm. Immediately, I jumped, and said, “Theo, you can’t do that. You can’t touch strangers. You can talk to them, but you can’t just go up and touch people.”
I promise, it had nothing to do with your book. We hadn’t even scheduled the interview yet. But the idea was so powerful in my instinct, that you don’t do that.
I’m sure people want to hear the backstory about how you do it. How you convince people to put their hands on someone like that? How you get them to break that taboo that they probably don’t even realize is there?
RR: The further the distance gets from the project, the more I realize that other things were at work. There was definitely a bit of a dare, and a challenge to people.
“I dare you to transgress,” like you said, “your own boundaries.” To do things that we are told are not necessarily appropriate.
There is a challenge that is being placed onto my subjects. More recently, I’ve started thinking that there is a transference that’s happening, of what I might want to do to the person.
As I became more of a director, as these scenes of joining these people together played out, I realized that I needed to make more compelling pictures. People have a very conventional sense of touch, in general. If left to their own devices, they’re just going to hold hands. Or put their arm around each other.
They’re not going to get that intimate. I realized I needed to be more of a director, and construct the points of contact. What I now have come to see is sometimes, I’m transferring what I would want to do one of the subjects. By having the other subject do it.
There’s this one image of a woman who’s going through chemotherapy, and she looks sick. You can tell. She has these ortho shoes on.
JB: In Hawaii?
RR: Yeah, it’s in Oahu. I paired her with this other woman, who was on her honeymoon, and I had her caress her on the cheek. I think it was the second exposure I made. I know that’s how I felt.
I felt bad, and I would have wanted to do that. There is this emotional transference that I see in these pictures, from where I stand now.
There’s another with a sexy black guy and black girl, in Venice Beach. I really wanted to touch the guy. He was like a body-builder working out at the pit in Venice Beach. You know?
RR: I wanted to be really intimate. So what she did was what I wanted to do. I find that conversation interesting, because it’s newer for me. It’s come up lately, discussing the work at talks. I’ve started to see my own projections. What I would wish for, were I to have that freedom to touch someone.
JB: That’s the sequel, right?
RR: (laughing.) (pause.) I can’t be the “Touching Strangers” guy forever.
JB: (laughing.) Indeed. I feel you. It was tongue in cheek. I don’t think we do sequels in photography. It’s not Hollywood, right?
RR: It’s true. Maybe you can do B-sides?
JB: It’s great to see the way people have responded to it. I saw it on the wall, and then I saw the book.
RR: Did you see the show at Aperture?
JB: I did. I was in New York in April. That’s part of why I ended up reviewing the book. I don’t get excited by photography as often as I’d like, unfortunately. But that show grabbed me, so when I finally got my hands on the book, it was a perfect way to write about it.
But until I did a little research for this interview, I didn’t know that Aperture had done a Kickstarter to raise money for the book. You didn’t do a Kickstarter campaign, they did?
RR: That’s right.
JB: How does that work? Here at APE, it’s a conversation we have often. Where does the money come from? Who’s doing the raising? How much do you have to bring to the table?
So please don’t feel like I’m putting you on the spot, but Aperture raised $80,000 to publish your book.
JB: That’s crazy. Did they use it all? Isn’t it their job to raise money? How does this work?
RR: I just wanted them to publish it outright. They told me they had been approached by Kickstarter to partner with them. Kickstarter was interested in raising their own profile.
JB: They got to benefit from partnering with the Aperture brand, in a sense?
RR: That was the intent. And Aperture, as a non-profit, is always looking for funding. So they viewed this as a new source of funding, because they’re always begging for money. They do auctions and fundraisers. They saw this as another source for them.
For me, personally, I was not sure about going down that road. One reason is that if people know me, and know my background, they probably knew that I had the resources to have had my own publishing company, which was Charles Lane Press. Which you know about.
RR: Although it was very challenging, and in the end, I wasn’t able to continue and make it work.
JB: You’re using the past tense here. I had no idea that it was defunct.
RR: It’s not defunct, but it’s on extended, if not permanent, hiatus. We’re still selling our stock of inventory. So it’s not gone, and there could be the opportunity some day to re-engage with that.
JB: You started it to produce your own book, which was “Fall River Boys.” Is that right?
RR: That’s right. But we also produced 3 other books by 3 other photographers.
RR: Yes. Which I’m very proud of. It was a great accomplishment, and I think they were really fantastic books that were under-appreciated, actually.
JB: As a publisher, how did you go about selecting work to get behind?
RR: I was naive, so I got behind the work that I wanted to get behind. Not work that, from a financial standpoint, crunching the numbers, I knew I could sell this many books. And make this much back.
I really wasn’t interested in publishing someone that had already been published, and had many opportunities before them. And I wanted to work with people that I thought were doing really interesting things. To give the same opportunity to them that Aperture gave to me with my first book in 2006.
I wanted to be a curator, in a way. For my partner and me, this were our choices. What we were presenting. And I didn’t want to present someone that everyone knew. You know?
Which was what someone told me I should do, if I wanted to really make the company work.
JB: I’m just spitballing here, but that’s why people like Martin Parr, or Paul Graham…
RR: (laughing) I was just thinking of Martin Parr too.
JB: Right. That’s why they have seven books a year, because the companies know that if they work with an established brand…
RR: It’s what people want. Because they buy it. Or it’s what people know. It’s a combination of the two. It was really challenging.
But getting back to Kickstarter, that was one concern. And another concern was, “What if we don’t make it?” When we were having this conversation, I don’t think Indiegogo had its feet to the ground yet. So if you didn’t make your goal on Kickstarter, you didn’t get anything.
To alleviate that concern, Aperture set a really low bar.
JB: 10 Grand.
RR: Yeah. The book would have cost more to produce, for sure, but at that point, they were talking something very small. More like the size of that Tim Hetherington book, do you know it, “Infidel?”
JB: Not off the top of my head. I should have lied and said yes.
RR: Closer to 5.5″x7″ than 8.5″x11″, you know? A smaller trim size, and a smaller press run. The campaign launched after Aperture sent a videographer, and we made the video piece of me actually making a “Touching Strangers.”
They launched it in June, and they have a hefty marketing department behind them, where they can get the word out to a huge mailing list. People knew about the project, because I had been putting it out since 2007. I showed the series on Conscientious, and on David Bram’s site…
RR: Yeah. I think I had, over the years, built an audience. But we met the funding goal in three hours. It became this thing that had a life of its own, and we got a lot of attention. The New York Times did a piece while the campaign was still up.
Towards the end, CBS news contacted me and wanted to do a piece. I was anxious and nervous about that too. I thought they were going to paint it with a very sentimental brush. It was all about “Touching Strangers,” and they tailed me on a shoot. I pushed back really hard against where I thought he wanted to go.
It still goes there, but it’s OK that it goes there. There is, included, some of the tension and complexity. I was really pleased with how the final piece came out. The segment is called “On the Road,” it used to be with Charles Kuralt.
RR: Very Americana, heartfelt stories. The piece does arouse sentiment, but I don’t think that’s bad. Because the work does, you know?
I was actually in New Mexico, and it aired the day that CBS went offline in three of the biggest markets, because of a contract dispute.
JB: Oh my goodness.
RR: So people in New York and LA tried to tune in, and CBS was black on Time Warner cable systems, because Time Warner and CBS had a dispute which lasted a week. But in the fall, the piece got picked up by some of the news aggregating sites, like Reddit, and it went viral.
The Youtube video of that CBS piece ended up with 2 million views. It’s too bad that didn’t happen when the Kickstarter campaign was up. That just propelled it even further.
JB: But they wouldn’t have needed $800,000 to produce your book, right? 80 Grand, I would imagine, covered everything?
RR: It enabled them to make a bigger book, a higher press run, and covered the traveling exhibition.
JB: Do people now contact you? Do they want to be shot by Richard Renaldi? Is this developing a commission aspect to your career, or has that not happened yet?
RR: Last year, when the project went “viral,” an organization called Art Works, in Cincinnati, approached me. They have a partnership with Cincinnati Metro. They are generally a mural program, where they create murals all over Cincinnati.
With the Metro partnership, they place art works in the bus stops, in the big light box displays. They thought it would be great to bring “Touching Strangers” into that, and do a partnership with Cincinnati Metro. They commissioned me to make original “Touching Strangers” for the light boxes, to coincide with the Photo Focus photo festival, which opens this weekend.
I jumped at the chance, because for engaging the public, on a mass scale like that, the bus stop is perfect. And it comes full circle, because the idea came out of the “See America by Bus” series.
RR: As the time approached, to go make the pictures, I was actually dreading it, because I hadn’t shot “Touching Strangers” in a while. I was done with it, and it was hard to wrap my head around going back to do more. So I didn’t want to go.
But it was a commitment, and I ended up making some of the best pictures in the series. Really, it turned out to be a strong collection, the pictures from Cincinnati. Maybe we can include some of those.
JB: It would be cool to publish them. We’d love to show things that people haven’t seen.
RR: Honestly, beyond that, I was hoping that I would get another ad campaign some day. I had a great experience with that Microsoft job. It was kind of the job of a lifetime, I don’t know if that will ever happen again but I am certainly open to it.
JB: Well, those folks read this blog every day. So, who knows?
RR: I know, I know. I would love those folks to throw me into the mix again. On that Microsoft job, which spanned 18 countries, I really ended up enjoying the discipline, and it ended up making me a better photographer.
I had to think about other considerations, and photograph with someone else in mind. But I was really fortunate, because I had the artistic freedom to make the kind of images I wanted. In that project, it really looks like my work.
I’d really like that opportunity again.
JB: Well, we’re putting it out there, so we’ll see what happens.
JB: (laughing) I’m helping as much as I can.
RR: I was approached by Hanes, recently, to do people touching each other’s new Hanes soft-cotton blend T-shirt.
RR: So they wanted to basically co-opt “Touching Strangers.”
JB: Strangers Touching Michael Jordan.
RR: Basically. They wanted to sell underwear with my idea. And that didn’t appeal to me. I thought it wouldn’t respect the work I did on this project. But they thought it was the greatest idea in the world.
JB: Of course they did.
RR: They wanted to attach my name to it. I thought, “Maybe if I was anonymous, and it was a lot of money, I’d consider it.” But I pushed back pretty hard, and I never heard back.
JB: Earlier in the interview, you talked about a project in which you were photographing in bus stations, which are inherently transient, and you were taking Greyhounds and such. And with “Touching Strangers,” it’s right there in the title, that you don’t know these people.
How do you operate? Do you give people prints, when you take their picture? Do you ever stay in touch? Is this only a fleeting connection, or have any of these pictures led to relationships that have evolved over time?
RR: I don’t know if I like the word fleeting, but it was definitely a short-term relationship.
JB: Ephemeral? How’s that?
RR: Sure. There could have been a strong connection, but I haven’t done a project where I’ve followed someone for a long period of time. Where you get close to them.
My portraiture has been more about a place, or an idea, rather than the long story of someone’s life. Because of that, I haven’t gotten to be close friends with many of my subjects, per se.
Though “Touching Strangers” is the one exception, where I have had subsequent contact and conversations with some of the people in the pictures. That is largely due to a lot of the press that followed; they wanted to be connected with some of my subjects to interview them about the experience.
I became an intermediary, or a go-between, and I really enjoyed having the contact with them. I always send my a print or a jpeg, so I always get their contact information.
JB: It’s the perfect title, “Touching Strangers.” You have this incredible way of opening yourself up for your audience. In the book, you talk about the fact that you used to sneak out of your house in Chicago, when you were a teenager, and literally touch strangers.
That’s almost an encoded part of the title, though I suppose you have to read the statement to know that. There are different levels of ideas going on in this one project, wouldn’t you say?
RR: I would. It’s pretty layered, I think. Which is cool. There’s a personal part, and then the universal. It’s resonated with the viewers, and it’s an accessible idea.
Probably the most that I will ever have in my career. I don’t imagine subsequent series will reach as many people. I’ve really reached more people with this one series than most photographers ever do.
And that’s kind of cool. It’s an accessible idea, and so much of art is often intimidating to people. There is often this notion that you need to know something about art to understand it.
I think that’s a potential pitfall of art and photography, is that it can be so academic. I think it’s because photography is this reproducible thing, so there’s this drive to make it seem rare, because of the market.
There’s a preciousness attached to it, where photography is trying to make itself rare. Music and film aren’t like that. They’re for everyone. I think art would be better if it had a more accessible, mass appeal approach.
That doesn’t mean I created “Touching Strangers” to have mass appeal. It just happened to resonate.