Richard Renaldi, Touching Strangers series, 2007-present

Richard Renaldi, Touching Strangers series, 2007-present

I’m looking backward again. While in Chicago last summer I visited Richard Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers” exhibition at the Loyola University Museum of Art. This series has gotten a lot of attention and I’m still mulling it over.


On the surface, the idea is an easy one: Renaldi asks people who have never met to pose in an intimate way—as if they are a couple, family, or close friends—and then he takes a photograph.

Okay … but there are a lot of (mostly unanswered) questions here. How did he approach them? When the participants are in a private space—like a hotel room—how did he get them there? How did he pick them? What did he say when he first approached them? Did they decide how to touch or was there some coaching? If so, how much?



After a little digging, I did find a answers to the last couple questions. Apparently, Renaldi did make suggestions to the participants—like to flirt or even kiss. This makes sense if you’re a photographer wanting interesting photographs. It makes less sense if you want to really explore the connection between touch and relationship, which was the series’ ostensible reason d’etre.

In fact, after looking at the first half-dozen photographs in the gallery that day in June, I found the basic interpretation of the project to be all wrong. I had read that Renaldi is using touch to make spontaneous and fleeting relationships between strangers. I don’t think so. He’s just asking them to touch, and touching does not necessarily mean a relationship has formed, even a fleeting one.



This demands a little interrogation. For some photos, you could say that the subjects performed relationship because they got into it and acted like they were in a relationship. Or, you could say that the relationship he created was “two people who participated in this artist’s project.” And maybe for a few of the photographs, the brief interaction did lead to a real connection between of the participants. But as a whole, these photographs are not about relationships in any meaningful sense of the term.

Now, despite this criticism, I think this project is fascinating—just not for the reason Renaldi and others have proposed.



As I walked around the gallery, I was struck again and again by how the subjects dealt with the issue of trust. To participate, they had to trust each other and they had to trust Renaldi—and all the more so because they were directed to pose in intimate ways. To shake a hand is one thing, to kiss or even hug is quite another.



For me, each photograph became a study about how different people react when this kind of trust is requested or even demanded of them. For some, they throw themselves at it, as if the best way to trust is to pretend there’s nothing at risk. For others, they tense up and exert their will over any fears. Others seem to be comfortable with the scenario—as if they have a natural trust in people, even strangers.

Maybe this has struck home because I have young children and the idea of “stranger danger” is everywhere. My mama bear instincts flash when someone I don’t know even talks to my children, let alone touches them. And yet, I don’t want my children to grow up always keeping strangers at arm’s-length. I want them to reach out. I want them to practice hospitality.

There are so many passages in the Bible that stress the importance of hospitality—welcoming strangers, into one’s home, trusting them in order to give them a place for refuge or rest. One of my favorites comes from Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).

With the refugee crisis growing around the world right now, we can see the relationship between trust and hospitality playing out. There are millions of strangers who desperately need a place of rest and refuge. Do we have the trust to reach out and welcome them? Where is our trust?

Of course, our trust is in God. God calls us to open our doors, to kindle a fire, to prepare a meal… to touch a stranger as if she is family, as if he is an intimate friend.

And when we reach out, we place our trust in God.

I just wish it were that easy.



Gertrude Kasebier, Blessed Art Thou Among Women, c. 1899

Gertrude Kasebier,
Blessed Art Thou Among Women, c. 1899

It’s Mother’s Day, so I thought I would reflect a little on the subject of motherhood. This is one of those classic pictorialist photographs in which the photographer stages the whole thing, uses a soft focus, and manipulates the negative and print in order to convey an idea. Here: motherhood.

Käsebier places the mother and daughter in a doorway, the girl standing at the back of the threshold as if slightly hesitant to move through it. The mother is positioned a little further forward, but turns back and places her arm across the girl’s shoulders as if to encourage her daughter to step out. She also seems to whisper in the girl’s ear—those words are not meant for us to hear.

The contrasts are striking. The mother is in a long, flowy, white robe or dress which pools at her feet. Her hair is back but loosely tied. She has no jewelry, no ornament. The little girl, in contrast, is clothed in a dark dress, dark tights, dark shoes. The collar and cuffs are starched and bow is tied to accentuate the high collar. Her hair is cut in a neat bob with straight bangs—a shape that resembles the shape of the buckle. She stands straight and looks directly out at us.

The idea here is not complicated. This girl stands on a metaphorical threshold between the private space of the domestic sphere and the larger world beyond. The mother has done her job to prepare the girl for this transition and now ushers her to the spot. The girl seems to hesitate, but there is also an unflinching attitude behind the directness of her gaze.

This is what parenthood is all about, right? We prepare our children to face the world beyond the realm of our control and protection. The mother here blends into the interior space, suggesting that she will stay behind even as her daughter moves out.

It is easy to read the mother’s gesture as one that is nudging her daughter forward, but as a mother, I now see it differently. I think that mother has grasped her daughter one last time before she walks through that door. And she leans down with one last thing to say. She doesn’t really want to see her little girl go.

Me either. But that’s what mothers do.

To put a finer point on it, Käsebier puts a painting of the Visitation on the wall behind them—two biblical mothers (Mary and Elizabeth) who also had to let their children go (sons, in their case), both to die, one in order to save the world. Thankfully, I don’t have to bear that burden, but honestly it doesn’t make it any easier.

Here’s to all the mothers out there who have loved and let go.



Robert Polidori,
After the Flood, 2005

This week, I’ve been working on a conference paper about coffee table books that focus on natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. I understand coffee table books about Glacier National Park or temples of Japan, but disasters? And there are dozens of them.

The ones that are particularly confounding are the ones that are beautiful. The photographs are beautiful, the layout is beautiful, the printing is beautiful. Take this photograph. It shows a bedroom of a house in New Orleans after the floodwaters have receded. The contents of the room have collapsed or shifted and there’s a layer of grime coating every surface. Even the walls above the waterline have blossomed with mold.

It’s a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess. A soft even light fills the room (thanks to Polidori’s exceptionally long exposure times) and the dirt dulls and harmonizes the colors. Polidori also sets up the composition to create balance (the books on the shelf counterweights the doorway and window) and rhythm (the vertical lines of bedposts and doorframe against the horizontals of the footboard, watermark, and ceiling. This is just one of hundreds of similar photographs collected in Polidori’s book, After the Flood.

Critics are quick to point out that this kind of aestheticization of disaster is exploitative. Here is a photographer who is using people’s ruined lives to make gorgeous images for a beautiful book. The counter-argument, of course, is that the beauty of his images is getting people to look at these ruined lives—people who might otherwise have turned away in disgust.

Aside from the ethics of it, I’m interested in the effects of aestheticization. It puts a filter on the content of image. As a viewer, you may feel like you are getting an unmediated view of the destruction wrought by the storm and flood, but you are really getting something you could not actually see if you were actually standing in the room. For starters, there would not be enough light to actually see everything you see here. Furthermore, because Polidori so subtly incorporates harmony and softness, the content is considerably less jarring—less off-putting—than it would be if you were there. Plus, you’re not wearing an air filtration mask, are you?

Robert Polidori, After the Flood, 2005

Robert Polidori,
After the Flood, 2005

I believe that the beauty of this coffee table book distances viewers from the actual places, instead of actually bringing them closer. (If you’re into theory, I’m borrowing from Guy Debord here.) If you think about it, any photograph removes us from direct experience, but when a photographer uses a particularly aesthetic approach, it further separates the viewer from the reality that is depicted. Reality is mediated. You’re looking at something through those proverbial rose-colored glasses.

The problem here …

When these disasters are thus mediated for viewers, they (we) don’t actually experience them, or experience their actuality. We are removed. Sure, we may feel sad or astounded or sympathetic (I certainly do!), but those responses are fleeting. Close the book, and we soon forget.

And that’s the irony, the books claim to have been produced so that people would not forget, but I think they may actually facilitate forgetfulness by supplying pages and pages of images that encourage and then satiate our curiosity. We eagerly consume and, by the end, we are emotionally tired. We’re spent. We close the book. And that is all.


Nick Ut, "Napalm Girl" photo, 1972

Nick Ut, “Napalm Girl” photo, 1972

Now, I’m teaching a unit on war photography. Of all the units in all the classes I teach, this one is the hardest, by far. I find myself breaking into tears at my desk while prepping a lecture.

It’s too much. I hope for the flu or a massive snowstorm so I don’t have to give tomorrow’s lecture. I don’t want to have to wade through hundreds of these horrifying images to find the ones I want to discuss in class. And I don’t want to talk about them. I would rather skip it. They are too hard to look at and too difficult to contend with.

But that’s exactly why I shouldn’t skip it, I know. So here I am.

Susan Sontag, in her Regarding the Pain of Others, has already grappled with a lot of the tough questions about war photography. Honestly, I don’t find her book particularly helpful, but she does get us thinking and that’s a good thing. She asks questions like …

Ronald Haeberle, My Lai Massacre, 1968

Ronald Haeberle,
My Lai Massacre, 1968

What are the ethics of taking photos of war? How about publishing them? Do photographers have the ethical responsibility to document the horrors of war? Is taking or publishing a photo of a casualty war an act of justice or exploitation, or something in between.

What is the responsibility of the viewer? Should we look away out of respect for the victims? Or, should we pay more close attention? At what point do we move from being concerned viewers to simple voyeurs, or the other way around? The saturation of our visual worlds tends to make conscientious viewing more difficult, but that’s no excuse. I do think we need to look and we need to think about what we’re seeing.

Timothy O'Sullivan, Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, 1863

Timothy O’Sullivan,
Field Where General Reynolds Fell,
Gettysburg, 1863

What is the effect of these photographs, particularly the shocking ones? Do we expect that they will actually change opinions about a war? For the first century of war photography, the images tended to reinforce already established opinions about wars (the British were acting heroically in Crimea; Northern soldiers fought and died to save the Union; soldiers on Iwo Jima signified the strength, solidarity, and hope of all America). But with the Vietnam War, we have some suggestion that photos did change public opinion. In that war and the wars that followed, photographers took a no-holes-barred approach, which gave the public back at home a more complicated picture of what was happening “over there.” Perhaps our soldiers are performing acts of courage and self-sacrifice in the cause of justice and democracy, but other things are happening too—things that are difficult, complicated, and often horrifying. The photos force viewers to grapple with these issues. Force me.

So …

Damir Sagolj, U.S. Soldier Holds Iraqi Child, 2003

Damir Sagolj,
U.S. Soldier Holds Iraqi Child, 2003

I look at these photographs and weep. I may be pricked by photo that tells a specific story of someone who has suffered—a father, a child, a soldier, a wife, a prisoner—but it is the sheer magnitude of suffering that breaks me down. Each story I see represents hundreds—maybe even thousands—like it. What are we doing to each other? Why?

How dark is the human soul that we resort to such violence? What is the way out?

I admit I am very pessimistic. I don’t see a way out. I don’t have much hope for a more peaceful future. Perhaps that’s why these photographs are so hard for me. They testify to the fallenness of humanity, and it seems like God is so far away.

Photographer unknown, Syrian Civil War, 2013-14

Photographer unknown,
Syrian Civil War, 2013-14

Maybe that’s the point. We are fallen. It is in our nature to destroy (and in our nature to justify it). We cannot save ourselves from this—it has to be God, in his mercy, who steps in and puts an end to it.

So, I suppose I should get down on my knees and beg for this mercy.

God, please intervene. Do something soon.

Save us.




Robert Adams, Outdoor Theater and Cheyenne Mountain, 1968 (Fraenkel Gallery)

Robert Adams, Outdoor Theater and Cheyenne Mountain, 1968 (Fraenkel Gallery)

I just finished teaching a unit on landscape photography. Like my students, I don’t find landscapes to be intrinsically interesting—it doesn’t matter how majestic the scene or how dynamic the photograph. Until, that is, we get to the 1970s. Then we get to landscapes like this.

Robert Adams is particularly compelling to me, and not just because he took lots of photos in Colorado Springs where I grew up (I swear, for example, that I went to a movie at THAT drive-in sometime in high school). No, I am really intrigued by the questions his photographs seem to ask.

Take this one.

The photograph has three parts: the dirt, the sky, and the band between them. He includes a LOT of sky, with tuffs of clouds that add texture but also pull that part of the photo forward. The dirt has texture too, of course, and poles that draw the viewer into the image (if not into the actual space in the photo).

Adams situates his camera so that the top edge of the screen intersects the contour of the mountain just as the range descends sharply, so the screen’s sharp edge becomes the horizon until it again intersects the gradual incline of the earth on the left. The continuity of the resulting band is enhanced by the similar gray values across the whole width. Only the dark vertical line on the right edge of the screen offers a firm break between nature’s spectacle and a human-made one.

Which I think is the point. The Colorado front range is a spectacle. From any window on the west side of my childhood home, I could watch the mountains change throughout the day. On almost every afternoon in the spring a little drama would unfold as a weather front moved through, bringing huge dark clouds, lightening, and sheets of rain. Even without weather, the movement of the sun would change the appearance and the feel of those mountains.

I did watch. But not often. Certainly not often enough.

I think too often I was caught up in other things to pay attention. Too busy watching human-made spectacles, perhaps.

In photos like this, Adams was documenting the new topography that humans had created. It is easy to read some criticism about how humans have ruined nature, but I think this photo could also point to the fact that it is often precisely because of human insertions into the landscape that we actually notice the beauty of the land. Just look at me right now. I’m not sure I would have given a photograph of Cheyenne Mountain a second look without the screen, the fence, and the speaker poles.

Looking at this photo, I’m feeling nostalgic and regretful. I don’t have a panoramic view of the Colorado Rockies anymore. Oh, to be able to tell my 16-year-old self sitting at that kitchen table to slow down, look out, and just watch.

I can’t do that, but I can try to pay attention now–in the not-quite-as-spectacular landscape where I live now. I can tell my 42-year-old self to slow down, look out, and watch.

A Beautiful Landscape?

February 4, 2013

Michael Kenna, Pond of Human Ashes, Birkenau, Poland, 1998

Michael Kenna, Pond of Human Ashes, Birkenau, Poland, 1998

I saw an exhibit of Michael Kenna’s photographs a couple weeks ago. As I walked from photo to photo, I got sucked into one after another, simply because of the simple, calm, meditative, and beautiful compositions.

But then I got to his images of concentration camps, which are just as calm and beautiful as all the rest. Take this one, for example. There is a strong sense of symmetry and lots of soft gray tones. The soft forms of water and cloud balances the sharp focus of the trees, and the verticality of the trunks offsets the broad horizontal band formed by the horizon and shoreline.  All these things contribute to the beauty of the photo and, thus, the beauty of this landscape.

And that’s what is troubling to me. This is a photo of a pond where Nazi soldiers dumped the ashes of the people that they burned in the ovens at Birkenau. Under that placid surface lies a story of torment and anguish.

Apparently, these photos, like others by Kenna, are supposed to be about history, memory, and place. And I suppose the stillness and softness of the images does draw the viewer into a state of reflection and repose. If we take the time, we might also be drawn into contemplation, imagining if not remembering the events that went on in such places.

But, for me, there is a strong note of discord between the beauty of the images and the horror of the events those images point to. Kenna made all sorts of choices that enhanced the beauty of these places. He could have taken photographs that are stark, harsh, or jarring—photos that make us unsettled or even disturbed, as we should be given what went on in these places. By aestheticizing these places, these photographs seem to gloss over or (worse) make beautiful something that should be ugly.

I suppose there is another way to look at it. An ugly image would likely cause us to turn away. We may get the message, but we wouldn’t spend time meditating on it. By making beautiful images, maybe Kenna hopes to suck us in and keep us awhile, at least long enough for us to feel (really feel) the weight of these places or, perhaps, to be haunted by the image, causing us to look again and again, compelling us to think more deeply about how a place can seem so innocuous—so beautiful—and yet have such horrific stories to tell.

Well, here I am. Perhaps he made the right choice after all.