Portraiture can capture a time, a mood, and the energy of a place as much as that of the person being photographed. At the beginning of the 20th century, August Sander created a comprehensive and telling catalog of people and life in Germany with his portraiture and landscape photography. Now, nearly one hundred years later, Richard Renaldi reveals faces and places of America in the 21st century, as he travels around the country with his 8 x 10 view camera.
The environmental context seems key to these photos. When viewed as they are presented in Renaldi's aptly-named book, Figure and Ground, we are able to soak up the details of these moments in America, and feel how real they are.
Reading the book is like taking a road trip across America: Starting from portraits in New Jersey and New York City, we move west and encounter weary travelers in between places in bus stations, tattooed kids killing time in small semi-rural towns, transgender workers in ice cream franchises, new immigrants conversing in suburban streets, maids in hotel hallways, surfer dudes on the West Coast.
In many of the images we encounter a mixture of hopes and dreams, resignation, or determination to find something or somewhere better. Every page of the book is good and gently thought-provoking. It is by no means a comprehensive view of America (which is impossible), but it seems to accurately capture the mood and spirit of working-class people at the start of this century.
I met Richard Renaldi in November 2006, in Paris. We agreed to exchange thoughts and ideas via email interviews over the following months. Here are some of the exchanges.
Jim Casper: I love the flow and sequencing of the images in your book. Judging by Roger Hargreaves' essay, I take it that the form of the book came after the images were already taken over the course of several photo trips. Can you tell me a little about your working and traveling methods? What were you looking for? Did you travel by Greyhound and eat at McDonalds? How did you arrive at the final edit and sequence?
Richard Renaldi: I generally like to create photographs in the greater framework of a project. Thus the work in Figure and Ground is comprised of about seven years worth of work culled from several different projects. I started working with the 8 x 10 in 1998 generally shooting locally, working on my Madison Avenue, Workers, and Newark projects (which are all at the front section of my book).
I then became interested in Fresno, California and Fall River, Massachusetts, and in both cases began to rent cars to do the work — this helped to make the lugging of all the equipment around much less of a burden.
When I moved to LA in 2003 for a two year period I had my own car and proximity to much of the incredible western landscape. I began to make trips throughout the region and that is around the time I started the series on the west, the Great Plains and the bus traveler project.
As far as what I was looking for — people and places that inspire me within the construct of a given project — I couldn't exactly say why I “cast" the subjects I do. I think it is some combination of their character, the way the are dressed, timing, and approachability. I did not travel by Greyhound, and I try to avoid "Scottish" food, though there is a mini theme in the book of images that were all taken at McDonalds (three in total).
The final edit was the result of a collaboration between myself, my editor Lesley Martin at Aperture, and the book's designer Andrew Sloat. We thought of different ways we could present the work and we arrived at a geographic east to west approach organically. This is why the structure of the book has the feeling of a “road trip" across America.
JC: When you were shooting, were you conscious of trying to collect a representative sampling of people in America, or a certain type of people in America?
RR: No. I hadn't intentionally set out to make a body of work about America. I see how it comes off that way and do not mind the work having assumed that role. I was certainly conscious and drawn to the themes of class, race, and sexuality while creating my projects.
I was also aware that I was doing most of my serious work in the US, and I think that was partially a reaction from my days as a photo researcher at Magnum where I sometimes had a feeling of frustration that so many of the American photographers there only wanted to shoot stories abroad.
I have not focused on many aspects of the American social landscape such as the suburbs, professional types, the homeless. So I don't think my photographic vision of America is a complete one. When we did have all the work together we chose American Portraits as a working title, though I am glad we moved away from that being such a overreaching loaded title.
JC: Everyone seems so alone and isolated in these photographs, and not necessarily connected to their surrounding environments at all. They seem quiet, lonely, sad, adrift — do you think so too?
RR: I don't agree about them seeming sad and adrift. Yes many of the subjects in the work appear alone and a part of a larger environment. My intention in isolating them was not to create the sensation of loneliness but to enlarge and dignify them by not having any other physical distractions in the image composition. I think in the Bus Traveler series there is a sense of weariness there and I can understand feeling a sense of quietness, especially because I was trying to keep the focus on the one or two subjects even in a crowded public space. Certainly in the plains and out west many of these places and towns that I was in are isolated from the larger American mainstream, and that is definitely revealed here.
You may be closer in the description of them feeling quiet. Sometimes we expose something deeper and more probing in our quiet moments. I like the idea of stopping and looking at someone and them looking back — almost, if you will, “the stare". The 8 x 10 lends itself to those expressions as well since it is not a rapid process.
With regard to connecting to their environment, I also would disagree with you. Perhaps you need to explain this further to me, as when I look at the images, each subject looks to me as if that is exactly where I found them (which is largely true within usually a one block radius). The people on the streets of Newark and Los Angeles look like urbanites that belong in their “scene", the hunter in the west, or cowboy seem like they belong in the woods and at the rodeo, respectively. And I might argue that even the palette surrounding the subjects in the closer up images feels appropriate to the place they were photographed.
JC: Especially after reading your reply to this question, I agree with you more. I think you have captured the people as they are, in their real environments, and you have done this with dignity and emotion and truthfulness. They each speak volumes, to me. It is people like La Tasha who fill me with a bit of sadness for some reason, probably because she does seem so rooted there, yet that is probably as it should be — she belongs there, at least when the photo was taken. And the loners and dreamers on the road to somewhere else belong on the road just as well.
RR: I would actually agree with you about La Tasha. She was a bit personally adrift. She was sitting on the porch waiting for her “guy" to come home and was getting nervous that I was taking too long and he was going to catch her doing something she maybe shouldn't be doing, in her mind.
I also should mention that sadness may be a response to the large representation in my work of the American underclass. Hopefully it shows that life is difficult for many Americans and in that there is a truth that is being revealed.
JC: Can you talk about your choice of 8 x 10 rather than something less cumbersome and time-consuming? Did the slow, intentional manner of shooting large-format change the way you saw America and Americans in your travels?
RR: I feel devoted to the format. I adapted well to the slower process of shooting with an 8 x 10. Naturally it allowed me to be a little more intimate with my subjects. I think physically as an artist I had been guilty of doing things a bit too fast resulting in accidents or somewhat klutzy results. Slowing myself down with this equipment allowed something deeper to be revealed in my work.
Also going back to a place or theme over and over again is a slower way to build on something. Establishing the foundation for a body of work and then looking at what needs to be added to that foundation is a way to make that work stronger.
In my more recent work I am challenging myself to use the 8 x 10 in more spontaneous ways like a 35mm camera. I feel that there are other valuable emotions revealed in the moments of human action/activity that I want to capture with the detail and larger-than-life quality of the view camera.
JC: I notice in your note of thanks at the end of the book, you include Elaine Mayes. Can you tell me how she may have influenced your photography?
RR: Elaine Mayes was a teacher of mine at NYU. She was an inspiration to me because she brought an intellectual and emotional sensitivity to photography that I related to and understood.
JC: Any other thoughts or comments about the work, or America, or your book?
RR: I'm really happy that Aperture appreciated my photographs, got what I was saying, and took a chance publishing the work of someone like myself that was not so well known. I hope those opportunities arise for more young and also older photographers doing good exciting work. I think especially in the past three or four years there has been a lot of good photography being made. I think the people blogging about it, like you and Joerg [Colberg of Conscientious], are doing a great job of bringing those works to the surface and enlightening us.
JC: Well thanks, I appreciate your thoughtful and articulate answers to my questions. Continued good luck to you.
RR: Thank you. I've enjoyed these exchanges.
Richard Renaldi: Figure and Ground
Photographs by Richard Renaldi
Essay by Roger Hargreaves
Hardcover with jacket, 156 pages
90 Color images
9.75 x 11.25 inches