Photographer Nancy Scherl explores the unusual stigma surrounding eating alone
There’s an odd stigma around going out for dinner alone: while no one bats an eyelid at a solo coffee shop patron, or a lone cinema goer, dining in a restaurant without company seems to attract a certain suspicion.
Photographer Nancy Scherl has spent the last 35 years exploring this curiosity, shooting people around New York in a way that makes these lone diners feel beautifully cinematic.
Scherl’s images have now been brought together in a book titled Dining Alone: In the Company of Solitude, which features images from the 1980s until 2020 — the pandemic year in which dining alone took on a whole new resonance against a backdrop where isolation suddenly became the norm.
Her work takes a documentary, or cinema verité approach, as Laura Wzorek Pressley writes in the book’s foreword. While her subjects all follow the same theme, they also provide a potted history of changing fashions and broader sociological shifts — namely the way that the ubiquity of smartphones dramatically changes what it means and looks like to be ‘alone’; gently questioning if we’re really alone at all when we’re supposedly so connected through technology.
The book was designed by New York-based designer and photographer Bonnie Briant and spans 65 images. It showcases various types of dining establishments, from high-end restaurants to burger joints to cafes and finally, makeshift outdoor tents erected on New York sidewalks as a workaround to Covid-19 social distancing.
But whatever the style of eatery or era, Scherl’s images underscore the fact that dining alone flies in the face of the accepted idea that eating out is supposedly an inherently social activity; and that without the armour of companions, solo dining involves being ‘seen’ — both by other patrons and the restaurant proprietors, whose establishments are set up to accommodate the couples and groups that make up higher spenders.
As Scherl’s images show, those expectations were forced to shift in 2020 when lone dining suddenly became more normalised, because group interactions were suddenly impossible. Yet the premise of her images as a metaphor for being alone, but in public, remains the same: her vivid colours and curious documentarian’s eye show that sometimes, in the moments when people feel the most anonymous, they become the most visible.
Dining Alone: In The Company of Solitude by Nancy Scherl is published by Daylight Books; daylightbooks.org