Review: Fall River Boys by Richard Renaldi


Book Reviews, Photobooks

Located about 50 miles south of Boston and just outside Rhode Island, Fall River is one of the countless American cities that is only a hollow shell of its former self. If you have ever driven from New York City to Cape Cod, it’s one of the towns that you pass through. It’s unlikely you’ve noticed it. Its motto is “We’ll Try.” (says Wikipedia).

Over the course of nine years, Richard Renaldi used to come to Fall River to take photos of young men, who are growing up in a place like Fall River (there actually also s a small number of women in the book). The result of that photographic endeavour, Fall River Boys, has now become available in book form, published by Charles Lane Press, which was founded by Richard and his partner Seth Boyd.

Unlike the photography in his first book, Fall River Boys was entirely shot in b/w. With the exception of a few land- and cityscapes, Fall River Boys focuses on portraiture. It will be no surprise for regular readers of this blog that Richard is one of my favourite contemporary portrait photographer, and just like his first book, Fall River Boys shows him at his best.

Contemporary portrait photography requires patience from the viewer and a willingness to engage with it. Of course, there is a lot more to it, which can hardly be discussed in the context of a book review. But it is important to realize that for a viewer/reader to get to the essence of a book like Fall River Boys s/he needs to be able to spend time with the images.

Of course, in a review of a photographer’s body of work in print, focusing too much on technical aspects always risks taking away attention from the photography. However, in the case of a book like Fall River Boys not talking about its unbelievable quality would be, well, a sin.

With the photography book market expanding it seems as if we will see an increased spread in the quality of photo books. On the one hand, there will be on-demand books produced by Blurb or comparable services and books by actual publishers, but printed cheaply wherever the costs are lowest. On the other hand, there are indications that we will see more and more books created with extreme dedication, with costs being an irrelevant criterion and focus on the quality (basically the inverse of the former). Charles Lane Press clearly falls into the latter category. On their website, they write: “we view books as essential objects, akin to works of art themselves.”

Fall River Boys clearly reflects this dedication to the book as an essential object. Talking about a book as an essential object might sound pretentious, but it’s hard to understand it until you are actually exposed to it.

The other day, I looked at a book by a well-known publisher, a selection of b/w photography. In the shadows the photos looked extremely muddy and washed out: A complete disaster. The comparison with Fall River Boys is very revealing: For example, in plate 29, the portrait of two soldiers (“Brian and Rachael”), you can get your magnifying glass out and study the details of their uniforms. And in the puddle right in front of them, their reflections have actual detail. That is how you produce a photo book that not only is an essential object, but that also does the photography itself justice.