The term “contemporary photography” implies we are dealing with something quite distinct from whatever was done in the past. In some sense, this is true, but only in part. Defining what contemporary photography is is not all that simple. Someone not familiar with this kind of photography once told me (after having looked at this blog) that contemporary photography was mostly “bleak, rural landscapes, hardworking portraits, or linear landscapes and interiors playing with shadows, contrasts and lighting”. Again, in some sense, that is true, just as it is true that if you were to describe contemporary literature you could say it is “lots of characters printed on paper, which describe the mostly dreadful lives of people, many of which have terrible problems.” (well, at least the kind of literature that I like to read, for example Philip Roth’s or Thomas Bernhard’s novels) Maybe I just defined what future academics will use as the benchmark definition of contemporary literature. It is quite a bit more likely, though, that my description misses so many aspects that it is quite useless - just like pointing towards “bleak landscapes” or “hardworking portraits” does not really tell us anything about what contemporary photography tries to achieve.
Richard Renaldi’s Figure And Ground is a prime example of what contemporary photography is (or actually can achieve), and it is one of the finest photography books I have had the chance to look at in quite some time. In particular, when looking at the photos - those “bleak landscapes” or “hardworking portraits” - you realize how little such a description really offers. There is so much more there to see; and the interesting and exciting bits are exactly those where you realize that Richard managed to find and capture perfectly whatever it is that turns complete strangers - maybe even people we would never want to interact with - into characters whose lives we are suddenly interested in. Likewise, those landscapes that we are so familiar with in America - dilapidated buildings, the ubiquitous human deserts called suburbs - suddenly do not seem all that familiar any longer; it’s almost like Richard is allowing us to stare into an abyss.
What makes Figure And Ground even more interesting, especially for those familiar with books by other (especially American) photographers, is its connection to earlier work. Despite the differences, you might want to get your copy of In the American West out and see how things compare. The portraits in In the American West are focused on the subjects, whereas Richard includes some environmental context. So whatever you lose in detail in people’s faces is made up for by the environment. In In the American West, people look a little as if they existed in some sort of vacuum, which, I think, made it easy for some people to attack the work as something that showed “the West” in a bad light. I never agreed with this, and attacking Figure And Ground on these grounds would be even harder.
There are many other works that Figure And Ground can be compared with, and if I tried to provide a list I am sure it would be quite incomplete. In any case, even if you have no interest in studying Figure And Ground’s relation to photographic history, if you “just” want to see a prime example of the power of contemporary photography, this is be an excellent book to get and an absolute must for collectors of books of contemporary photography.