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Richard Renaldi mostly takes pictures of people in their work standing or sitting and looking at his camera, and some landscapes. Figure and Ground consists of pictures taken around America, in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Denver , Wyoming, Georgia, and other states. Most of his subjects are young, in their teens or twenties. They are highly posed, but still in a context. We see people standing in the street or waiting at bus stations, or occasionally in the countryside or in their workplaces, such as McDonalds. The people he shows look like they live in poor areas -- he shows streets in Newark, NJ, a highway in Arizona, a 99¢ store in California. Yet they are also not destitute: they look like their have their lives and they are on their way to wherever they are going. Some hold their young children with pride, or stare confidently at the camera. They don't smile much, but they don't scowl either. They are comfortable with themselves.
This collection by Renaldi does not give a strong first impression -- many of the images seem rather random and unremarkable. A picture of downtown Newark is not very interesting on its own; nor is a picture of a field in Oklahoma. Some individual portraits are striking. "Jeff, Dixie National Forest, Utah, 2004" makes you wonder what his story is, and what he is hunting. "Jaime, Denver, 2005 (Denver to Wichita Falls, Texas)" shows a man staring intently at the camera, his bus ticket in his top pocket. The lighting is beautiful, although the colors are more saturated on the website version than the book version. "Mike, Laughlin, Nevada, 2004" shows a young man dressed in black, wearing a cowboy hat and US Army frilled cowboy chaps. If it were not for his sweet serious face gazing into the camera, he would be obviously ridiculous, but somehow he carries it off. "Taylor, Philadelphia, 2005" is a beautiful picture of a young woman with a nose stud and a nose ring and a fringe of bright blue hair, looking wide eyed at the camera. Yet it's not clear how all these fit together.
Part of the problem is that after looking over Renaldi's website, it becomes clear that Figure and Ground is in fact a compilation of Renaldi's many different projects, and each individual picture is part of a themed series. The book just puts them all together with no structure, with very little accompanying explanation, except for a short piece by Roger Hargreaves which does not seem to address the book as a whole. Looking at these pictures as themed collections brings out their strengths and makes them more interesting. Renaldi is especially focused on masculinity, sexuality, race and class. Browsing through the pictures and texts on Renaldi's website makes it much clear what he is doing, and shows many images not available in his book. But once one is familiar with his work, then the book, which contains many images not on the website, it is a pleasure to see the photographs in greater detail, and in a larger size. You are able to see some of the smaller details, although these seem to be photographs that should really be seen in a large format. He seems to establish a relationship with the people he photographs; this may be due to the fact he uses an 8x10 camera that takes time to set up, and must give some formality to the occasion of the picture taking. While at first the pictures may give the impression of being high quality snap shots, it turns out that they bear repeated viewing. It is a pleasure to return to the images again and again. Hargreaves compares Renaldi's work to Richard Avedon's In the American West; time will tell whether Renaldi's images have the staying power of Avedon's, but this is certainly an impressive debut collection.
Renaldi website: http://www.renaldi.com/
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.