If it is true that familiarity breeds contempt then the town of one's beginnings can be the most contemptible of places. When we meet someone who has claimed to have lived somewhere 'all their life,' is there not a moment of pity towards that person that is closely followed by awe. How could they stand it all this time? How has that person stifled their curiosity of the larger world? Was it out of fear or simple paths of circumstance that added up to a lifetime in one place? Perhaps the awe also comes from knowing that those people who stayed allowed themselves to be 'known' by others so well that strong opinions could be formed.
The photographer Richard Renaldi in his new book Fall River Boys explores through portraiture and landscape the young men in a small Massachusetts town who are on the cusp of either cutting or reinforcing those ties to place and family.
When I think of the path my own life has taken to bring me out of similar circumstance into where and who I am now, it frightens me. I almost didn't graduate high school and had no direction nor desire for college. My decision to enroll in art school was almost entirely due to my girlfriend's encouragement. I could have, either out of fear or laziness, become a 'lifer' working jobs that would have provided me a decent but passionless life. At least that is what I imagine, and for me this is what makes looking at Richard's book all the more meaningful.
Of course these are my projections, but when I see the young man Erik in plate 32 with his straightforward glare with one hand on a baby stroller you know that that new responsibility will have a profound effect on what risks, and ultimately what decisions, he makes. Each person may start with the potential to do anything as we are told, but the possibilities narrow greatly with even the slightest of choices.
Portrait after portrait, we look upon the faces and clothing and momentarily ask about their futures; which of them will leave the street corner, which will become artists, which will work passionless jobs and which will find their calling, which will learn to love life and which will learn to hate it.
The landscapes in Fall River Boys describe not a town of horrible circumstance but simply of the ordinary. It is not affluent but middle working class and perhaps mind-numbing. As Michael Cunningham who penned the absolutely wonderful introduction tells us, Fall River's motto is 'We Try' - a motto which seems to be apologizing for itself and preparing for disappointment. Renaldi gives just enough of the surroundings for us to get a sense of the industry and perhaps the limiting opportunity for those who remain. Limiting as it may appear, Renaldi's view camera also ups the ante with its lush descriptions that render even the most dreary of industrial site in its moment of beauty.
If I had one criticism for Renaldi's work all along including his first book , Figures and Ground (Aperture 2006) it would be that his portraits are often center weighted to a fault. Especially with horizontal images where nothing else of seeming significance occupies the edges. In repetition, this strategy wears thin for me. I don't sense the surrounding space as a metaphor but as superfluous information that I wish was used better.
As a book Fall River Boys is beautiful. Top notch materials and production values. Rich tritone plates (with separations by the masterful Robert Hennessey) and a fine sense of design and especially trim size - it is a larger book and necessarily so. It is also the first offering from Richard Renaldi and Seth Boyd's new publishing venture Charles Lane Press. I have been told there are other books in the works by authors and if Fall River Boys is any indication, I will certainly be looking forward to the next releases.
Note: There is a booksigning with Richard at Dashwood Books on Wednesday March 25th from 6-8pm. Dashwood Books is located at 33 Bond Street in Manhattan between Lafayette and Bowery.