Renaldi Jessica and Alfredo
Alfredo and Jessica (detail) by Richard Rinaldi (Courtesy of Richard Renaldi and Bonni Benrubi Gallery, copyright 2014)

Courtesy of Richard Renaldi and Bonni Benrubi Gallery, copyright 2014

Photographer Richard Renaldi spent seven years photographing complete strangers in intimate poses.

Renaldi calls these pairings “fictional and orchestrated,” yet many of them convey a surprising familiarity and warmth. Viewers are left wondering: Are we imagining the kindness between the subjects? Are the subjects faking it? Or can sharing a few awkward minutes actually make two strangers care about each other?

Renaldi took the photos over the course of seven years, in Baltimore and New Orleans, New Bedford, Massachusetts, Las Vegas and New York. He takes his photos with a large 8x10 view camera. It's square with an accordion lens on the front, mounted on a tripod, like something from the 19th century. For the subjects, there is no mistaking that this is a portrait, not a casual snapshot.

Not everyone agreed to be photogaphed, but many did — maybe more than one would think, considering that touching or embracing a stranger is not something most people readily do.

Jessica Ong was stopped by Renaldi on the subway in Queens. She remembers it was a Saturday and she had forgotten to do something at work.

“In the subway you've got to work fast,” Renaldi says, “because the people are on their way somewhere and eventually their stop is going to come up. Jessica got on and I thought she was really lovely.”

Renaldi asked Jessica if he could take her picture. He introduced her to a middle-aged guy, named Alfredo, with a denim jacket and shoulder-length wavy hair — another stranger. Richard asked them to embrace, to face the camera, and took the picture. When the photo was done they all parted ways.

Three people who had never before met. Yet it is almost impossible to see that picture and not invest the scene with an emotion that just wasn't there.

Jeromy Coleman was eating funnel cake at the Ohio State Fair when Renaldi approached him. Coleman had just come from a Kesha concert. “He just walks up to me. He said, ‘Would you like to be in a picture?’" Coleman recalls. 

Renaldi paired him up with a man named Matthew, who looked like he’d just come from a rodeo. Matthew is white, stocky, with a cowboy hat, T-shirt, and jeans; Jeremy is black, with short hair and glasses. They’re posed in front of the American flag. The photo surprises in the way it juxtaposes race, body type and their sense of style. With the flag behind them it feels like a larger story about our society, about how divided we still are.

But is that really what it’s saying? 

Teju Cole, the photographer and author who wrote the foreword to Richard's book, says this:

A photograph is nothing but surface. But there are ineffable truths in the way things look. How things seem can be more startling than how they are.

But sometimes things are what they seem. In one photo, a middle-aged man wearing a winter hat and sweatpants kneels on a basketball court in front of an elderly woman. Their hands are clasped, each finger crossed through the other. It looks like he's asking for forgiveness.

Here's how that man described his experience:

Through twenty long years in New York City I had not one picture of me with anyone. So when I was approached to take one beautiful picture, I did. Not with a stranger, but with a woman that spent 80 some-odd years on this earth. She was no stranger to me.

See a slideshow of Renaldi's photographs from Touching Strangers.

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