On View: Decadent Night Becomes Day in "Manhattan Sunday"

By David Schonauer   Monday March 13, 2017

Richard Renaldi moved from Chicago to New York in 1986. In his book Manhattan Sunday, Renaldi describes his experiences as a young man who had recently embraced his gay identity and found a home in "the mystery and abandonment of the club, the nightscape, and then finally daybreak, each offering a transformation of Manhattan from the known world into a dreamscape of characters acting out their fantasies on a grand stage.”

In that sense, notes Aperture, which published the book, Renaldi’s work represents New York as “an evolving form onto which millions of people have and continue to project their ideal selves and ideal lives.”

Renaldi’s portraits, streetscapes and urban still life images convey the excitement of nightlife in a city that, as Aperture puts it, “persists in both its decadence and its dreams, despite beliefs to the contrary.” 

But the work, which is on view through June 11 at the George Eastman House  in Rochester, New York, also captures the sublime moment when night becomes day.  “Implicit in the work is Renaldi’s personal experience as a gay nightclub denizen in New York during and after the AIDS crisis, as well as his appreciation for the myriad and motley ways that the urban context encourages social awareness and a strong, if temporary, sense of community,” notes the museum.

Much of the work’s impact derives from Renaldi’s use of an 8x10-inch view camera, resulting in meticulous black-and-white images that, notes the Eastman House, “magnify the uniqueness of each subject while capturing the singular mood that suffuses the city in the hours before dawn.”

Renaldi befriended club owners and promoters, who let him bring his big camera and tripod into tightly packed clubs, notes the British Journal of Photography, which recently interviewed the photographer.

“I was trying to recapture that experience that I would have coming out of a club and, maybe still a little high, walking home, seeing the city in this tranquil, golden, beautiful, quiet light. But none of the people in the pictures project that ‘walk of shame,’” Renaldi says.

Renaldi says he shot in black and white not only to hint at that feeling of nostalgia and timelessness but to soften the image — muting the noise of color and drawing your focus into the characters’ stories. “Just as he balances the tonality of light, he creates a mellowness of mood felt by the subject, himself and the viewer,” notes writer Izabela Radwanska Zhang.

In some ways, the “Manhattan Sunday” work echoes Renaldi’s previous project “Touching Strangers,” notes Zhang: That series, shot between 2007 and 2014, featured two or more strangers from all over the US, physically interacting with each other as if they were family and friends.

“‘Touching Strangers’ was a dare, and with ‘Manhattan Sunday’ too there is an element of the subject letting down a guard, but it wasn’t as directed,” says Renaldi. “With everyone who goes out [clubbing] there is a yearning for that sort of thing – glamour and a little bit of desire.”


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