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Monday, November 1, 2010 - 7:27am

Touching Strangers: A Creepily Wonderful Concept

Updated: 4 years ago.

Holding the hand of a stranger is a creepy kind of wonderful. And asking strangers to touch each other might only seem creepy -- but it has produced an awkwardly wonderful series by fine art photographer Richard Renaldi. "Touching Strangers," as he calls it, explores the physical buffer we use to feel comfortable around people we don't know. Or in this case, the lack of it.

"Generally when you ask two people to touch, they're going to do one of two things," the New York City-based artist explains. "They're either going to hold hands or put their arms around each other. But I think there can be much more interesting ways to touch each other."

So Renaldi traipses around New York or wherever he finds himself -- Texas, Illinois, California, Florida -- with his 8x10 view camera (a monster of an object -- think Ansel Adams under a black cloth), looking for people who will put their hands on one another. How that happens, exactly, is different each time.

"Sometimes I get asked in lectures [if I'm] intentionally creating contrast in the pairings that I make. And the answer to that is that it's a much more organic process than that," Renaldi says. "It has to do with how comfortable they are or how open they seem to my suggestions."

Those suggestions, when made at wedding in a park, for example, create images like number four in this slideshow: A young black kid wearing a bandana and baggy clothes clutching a white woman in a wedding gown, clutching a bottle of champagne. A scene that managed to abstract itself even more, according to Renaldi, when "the wedding photographer started photographing my whole shoot, which I thought was pretty post-modern."

But this series isn't rooted in an art-school-fascination with the obtuse -- it's rooted in Renaldi's lamentation over one specific thing: Our separation.

"Touching Strangers" evolved into a project when Renaldi was looking through a book called "Dear Friends, American Photographs Of Men Together From 1840-1918." He noticed not only how affectionate the men seemed, but also how they appeared completely relaxed about it.

"And when you look at those pictures you realize, 'Oh my goodness -- This isn't what men do now,' " he says. "If you go to another country you see men holding hands. I think they used to do that in America until something changed here."

Renaldi's project has had only limited visibility. It had a small gallery showing in a Hermes fashion boutique in Manhattan and it exists on Renaldis website. Although he says he wants to turn it into a book when he has about 100 total images (he has around 50 now), it seems that exposure isn't really the point. Like many artists, Renaldi seems content to make his mark on a person-by-person basis. As one might expect, the series sometimes produces a strong personal response.

"Something I get a lot of," says Renaldi, "is people [wondering], 'What would I have done if I was asked? Would I have touched that person?' And I think that's really kind of cool."

Since his dedication to the project seems matched only by his wanderlust, you may want to come up with an answer to that question yourself. Indeed, Renaldi may soon be approaching a stranger near you. The result will be ... touching. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]

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