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Richard Renaldi, Manhattan Sunday
05:14Courtesy of the artist and Benrubi Gallery. © Richard Renaldi

Photos of New York taken the morning after the night before

Richard Renaldi captures what happens on the streets of New York on a Sunday at a time when most of us are still sleeping

In the wee hours of Sunday when the night breaks into morning, a curious cast of characters can be found on Manhattan’s streets and sidewalks. From nightclubbers, circuit bots, and prostitutes to garbage collectors, custodians, and drunks, the sun’s early light shines down upon a diverse array of personalities going about their business.

Intrigued by the possibilities of what he could find in the ever-changing fabric of New York, photographer Richard Renaldi began to set his alarm for 3 or 4 am, dragging himself out of bed while it was still dark, in order to take portraits of perfect strangers with an 8x10 camera.

The result is Manhattan Sunday, a collection of portraits, streetscapes, and still lifes that capture the witching hour in perfect black and white. The work, first collected for a book by Aperture, is currently on view at the Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, now through June 11, 2017. Renaldi speaks with Dazed about a New York that few know well.

What was the inspiration for Manhattan Sunday?

Richard Renaldi: I have been going out in New York since the mid-1980s and have had the oft-repeated experience of leaving the clubs after daybreak and experiencing the city at its most quiet and peaceful state, often in my own altered state. The soft early morning light—which each passing minute became ever more and more dramatic – held an element of the photographic to me. 

There is a feeling of possibility that something might happen. The potential that the nightclub offers to meet, flirt, and engage with strangers, carries over into the streets. The city is deceptively empty and calm, a perfect counterpoint to the sweaty exuberance of the disco. 

What kind of people attracted you?

Richard Renaldi: I was drawn towards people that projected confidence and comfort with becoming the image of their own imagination. I was drawn to people living out their fantasies, wherein some small or large way nightlife meant something to their sense of identity.

I was drawn to people that comprised part of the culture of New York nightlife. That said I never intended of attempted to catalogue a who’s who of the present nightlife scene, though some of the subjects in Manhattan Sunday are notable fixtures and impresarios of the night.

“I was drawn to people living out their fantasies, wherein some small or large way nightlife meant something to their sense of identity” – Richard Renaldi

I noticed that the people are not identified. Please talk about your decision to render them this way. What does "unnaming" add to the photograph? What does it release?

Richard Renaldi: Until this project, I had always named and dated the subjects in my photographs. I wanted them to be grounded in a certain reality.

Though there is an autobiographical tenor in Manhattan Sunday, I wanted the viewer to be able to step into the experience as if it were their own. I wanted these pictures to function as a stand in for someone else’s own experience with nightclubbing. It could be any era. I did, however, decide to place a time stamp (e.g. 05:34) for each image in the work. This functions especially well in the book format, which lends itself to the narrative structure (in this case, it is “one evening”). 

You moved to the city in 1986 so you've seen the city go through so many changes over the past three decades. How does Manhattan Sunday address some of those changes – as well as consistencies?

Richard Renaldi: I don’t think they are specifically addressed in the work but I think those changes inevitably come up in the conversation around the theme of New York nightlife. There are, of course, differences between back then and now but I found myself more interested in the timelessness of the experience, of wanted to lose yourself, or to feel glamorous and sexy. Those impulses never change. The venues, ticket prices, styles, and real estate markets are always in flux but those cravings for stimulation, gatherings, tribalism, and escapism pass on from one generation to the next.

Many people do not have a sense of the past, of the impact that the Aids crisis had on New York, specifically the gay community, and nightlife itself. How does Manhattan Sunday grow out of this experience?

Richard Renaldi: The impact of Aids is a part of this story. It isn’t overt but unavoidable and implied. The effect Aids had on the culture of nightlife and gay nightlife specifically was profound. It was very much connected to the experience of clubbing, drugging, and promiscuity. In the book’s afterword, I address my personal anxieties about Aids and having seroconverted to being HIV+ in the mid-1990s. Fortunately, today with advanced HIV therapies, there is a far lesser extent of mortal dread associated with the nightlife experience. 

Why did you decide to shoot the project in black and white?

Richard Renaldi: Timelessness. Grandeur. Dreaminess. I was mindful that photographing in black and white was more appropriate for the ideas I wanted to explore and would be more forgiving to my subjects, who might be spent from a long night of partying. I love colour photography but photographing an homage to Manhattan and the club scene in black and white felt non-negotiable.

Manhattan Sunday is on view at the Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, until 11 June 2017