At The Light Factory: Intimate strangers in photographs

Photographer Richard Renaldi asks total strangers to invade one another’s personal space. He asks them to touch each other – hug, hold hands, give a peck on the cheek – and then he snaps a photo. The results are often startling and reveal a false sense of intimacy between people who have just met.

Renaldi’s unusual M.O. is more than a little off-putting, but he’s been convincing strangers to cozy up to each other since 2007.

Actually, “cozy” isn’t the right word. His portraits of two or more strangers don’t often convey warmth. It’s more likely that the pair or trio looks uncomfortable.

What’s really captivating about these images is that his subjects don’t look like they’re strangers. They look as if they have a shared past – possibly a painful one.

The Light Factory is bringing Renaldi to Charlotte for the first time and for the first major exhibition in its new space. The nationally known, New York-based photographer will give a free lecture Oct. 3. He’ll teach a class on photographing people (and the art of approaching strangers) Oct. 4-5.

Getting someone of Renaldi’s stature is a coup for the 42-year-old photography center that almost went under last year. With a new board, successful Kickstarter campaign and reinvigorated sense of purpose, TLF is aiming high with this exhibition.

TLF’s Interim President Phil Moody says Renaldi’s visit is significant because he’s “current, relevant and in the public eye.”

“This is a new chapter for us,” Moody says. “We’re expecting to build community engagement with people in our new neighborhood. We’re starting to work with people we haven’t met before. That’s a good analogy for this show.”

One of only four national, nonprofit museums in the nation focused on the art of photography and film, TLF officially reopened Sept. 17 with “Touching Strangers – an edited selection of 20 of his images. The show will remain through Nov. 7.

In the “Touching Strangers series, there appears to be a story behind the photos. “People have a deep need to explain things. People want to make sense of this,” he says. He likens the urge to link these strangers to being alone in a restaurant, seeing a couple at the next table, and making up a life for them.

In other words, we want a story. Even though we know these people where brought together for a brief moment, viewers still find themselves developing their own narrative about the people in these photographs. “We project a lot onto these images,” Renaldi says.

When Renaldi first hatched this idea, it took him a year to summon the chutzpah to begin approaching strangers. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says,

The first tries were stiff and awkward. Sometimes these would-be models come up with ideas on their own. More often, Renaldi needed to become both director and photographer. He says there’s a street performance aspect to what he does.

“Touching Strangers” Touching Strangers is more than an exhibition. It’s also the name of Renaldi’s new monograph released by the Aperture Foundation this spring. The Light Factory is holding a photo contest and encouraging people to bring two strangers together and shoot their photo. The winner, judged by Renaldi, will receive entry into Renaldi’s workshop in Charlotte.

With the Renaldi show – and with Renaldi himself coming to Charlotte – TLF is fulfilling part of its mission: “Where the most recognized, most acclaimed, and occasionally notorious images hang on the wall to educate and inspire.”