ridiculousness…

It must have been a slow news day because both Eater and Serious Eats picked up a comment I made on eGullet and ran with it.

Although I hate to lend an iota of credence to this absurdity by wasting a single nanobyte on this topic, as the person who (inadvertently) initiated this party, and, more importantly, as one who takes photographs in restaurants, I feel the need to address Chef David Chang’s recent ban on photography in his restaurant momofuku ko.

For those who are behind, let me bring you up to speed. The rest of you can skip ahead.

Recently, while recapping a dinner at momofuku ko, a friend – let’s call this friend X – mentioned to me that the restaurant’s staff had prohibited X from taking pictures (of the food) with a dSLR camera.

Were you using a flash?

No.

Did they give you a reason?

No.

X shrugged. I shrugged. We moved on with our lives.

Weeks pass.

This morning, I *happen* to mention this (ban on photography at momofuku ko) on eGullet. I didn’t think the comment would get much attention; maybe a confirmation, a denial, or a joke (or two). Like most ancillary topics, I expected it to get steamrolled aside to make way for the wide berth of Chang chatter. I certainly didn’t think it would make it all the way to Chang himself.

But, I should have know that gossip is gossip, and, on a slow day, even the driest bit of information needs to be juiced.

So, the topic at hand has become: banning photography in restaurants.

Where do I stand?

Where do you think I stand? I’m a food blogger who takes photographs in restaurants.

I simply cannot imagine a cogent argument for banning restaurant photography, unless there’s an equally effective argument for banning a whole litany of other restaurant behavior, many of which I personally find far more distracting and/or offensive than photography. I’ll allow that there are some very legitimate reasons for disallowing restaurant photography, but I have yet to hear one.

That being said, I do think there are some perimeters within which restaurant photographers should stay. I’d like to think that for most people, these social boundaries are intuitive. If they’re not, read on; hopefully I can help make them clear.

Do I take flash photography in restaurants? No.

Am I obnoxious about it? I’d like to think that I’m not. In fact, I think I’m rather discreet about it. I keep the lens on the food and rarely take photographs of interiors, and certainly, never of other patrons. If I do, I always ask permission first. I don’t brandish my camera like a weapon or a prize, threatening a chef or their staff for special treatment. Like Robyn Lee of Serious Eats, I’m rather self-conscious when I take photographs in restaurants. I realize it isn’t normal; it often draws stares. And, that’s a social trade-off I have to live with. Restaurant photography is probably considered rather bizarre by many. But, I find the wearing of sunglasses in restaurants extremely bizarre too. But, that doesn’t give me the right to have the staff snatch those glasses from Jack Nicholson’s face. So just imagine my camera is a uni-lensed sunglass that only appears with each new course.

Do I put nearby diners on edge? Maybe, but probably less so than the volume 73 half-drunk at table 24, or the sickening couple at table 5 who should have just ordered room service so they could have eaten the food off of whatever part of each other they wanted to in private.

Do I put chefs on edge? I don’t know. But, why should I? Presumably, they’re in the kitchen and I’m in the dining room. I understand in some situations, like momofuku ko, where there only 14 diners at a single counter top with chefs within an arm’s reach, the dynamics might be different. But, if the chefs are unsettled by a lens, then they should say so. Also, a chef should be proud of what they’re sending out to me – why should the presence of a lens affect the quality of the food presented?

Upshot: As long as a diner is not using flash or launching into paparazzi mode, I think a diner has every right to take snapshots of their food. You do your thing. I’ll do mine. As long as everybody keeps their hands and feet within their respective areas, nobody gets hurt.

Some other thoughts and responses:

1. According to Serious Eats, David Chang responded to this issue, pithily, with “It’s just food. Eat it.” Come on Mr. Chang, who are you kidding? This is disingenuous at best. If this is true, then why allow food photography at your other two restaurants, momofuku ssam bar and momofuku noodle bar? Don’t you serve food there? This isn’t *just* food, and you know it. That’s like me saying, “It’s just foie gras. Sear it (and suffocate it with sticky fruit compote like everybody else).” I mean, why freeze it and shave it over lychee gelee? Because it’s pretty damn cool, that’s why. If Mr. Chang is flexing his culinary superhero muscle, then that’s his prerogative. Let me be the last to stand in the way of that brand of machismo. But, if he has other reasons for this ban, however, strange or absurd – like camera-shy chefs, preventing unwanted press, or concerns about cluttered/crowded counter space – it’s to his advantage to state them. The one he’s given makes him seem pretty darn foolish.

2. Chefs work/experiment/play/study/interact with food to make it different, better, more interesting – both gastronomically and visually. However un-academic, pointless, or boring, I do the same by taking photographs and blogging about food. And, yes, I eat it too.

3. I also pay a pretty penny for it. That’s right, I’ve been charged admission, now let me enjoy the ride. Does that give me a green light to run roughshod over the dining room with my shutter-happy self? Absolutely not. Should I be able to sit at my own table and discreetly take non-flash photography of the food, take notes (which I don’t do), and talk about it with my dinner companions? I don’t see why not.

4. Raphael Brion (on Serious Eats) likened restaurant food photography to smoking. This is a half-witted comparison. As far as I know, digital photography (flash or no-flash) isn’t hazardous to one’s health; second-hand snapping causes no cancer. I understand Mr. Brion’s larger point is that photographing, like smoking, in restaurants can be annoying. But, apparently it’s not as annoying as a diseased lung. There’s a reason why smoking in restaurants has been banned by law and photographing has not.

5. It’s been suggested that chefs ban photography to protect “trade secrets.” This is nonsense. What can photos convey that a highly detailed drawing or description can’t? I realize that a picture is worth a thousand words, but let’s be realistic.

6. I’m aware of at least one chef who prohibits photography in his restaurant due to contractual exclusivity with his professional photographer. (That is, only his professional food photographer’s photos may be used in the public fora.) My question is: if your professional food photographer feels threatened by my amateur on-the-spot shots that might float about on the internet, shouldn’t you be asking *me* to take photographs for you?

I have nothing personal against Mr. Chang. Unlike many, I don’t think that everything that comes out of his mouth is poison.  Actually, I very much admire his entrepreneurial spirit and success; he’s built quite the cottage industry. He’s not a half-bad chef, either. I have enjoyed two very good meals at his restaurants momofuku ssam bar and momofuku noodle bar. I’ve also enjoy taking pictures of his food at both. I just wish that I might have the opportunity of doing the same at momofuku ko.

Thus ends one of longest blogposts I’ve written – with no pictures.

[Addendum to blog post: To all of you food photographers who are using flash (excessively), jostling other diners, getting up to take photos of everything including the bathroom sink, and committing other intrusive acts of senselessness: STOP IT. You’re the bad apple in the cart.]

~ by ulterior epicure on June 20, 2008.

15 Responses to “ridiculousness…”

  1. I wasn’t equating “restaurant food photography to smoking” — I was suggesting, in a lame attempt at humor, that part of a restaurant should be sectioned off, so that those who don’t want to be seated next to a table with people whipping out cameras with every course shouldn’t have to be.

  2. Thanks, Raphael for the clarification. Would you propose sectioning off drinking and a non-drinking sections? I’ve been disturbed by many a half-drunk diner near me. Of course, usually, the restaurant doesn’t do anything about the uproar; they’re making loads of money off the mark-up on those bottles.

  3. If we’re going to do photography and non-photography(and if we do, can our half at least be lit better? Thanks.), then how about these far more worthwhile suggestions:

    Drunk/no drunk
    young, poorly behaved children/not (what I call screaming/no screaming)
    perfume/no perfume

    All of which are far more invasive than respectful, non flash photography. Perhaps we should discuss the fantastically annoying propensity for NYC restaurants to cram tables far too close together so that you’re practically sitting in the lap of the stranger next to you- you certainly can hear their conversation just as well as the one you’re attempting to have at your own table. Because *that* is more annoying than the photography in question if we’re going to start discussing “ruining the experience of fine dining”.

    If it’s “just food”, why are we paying so much money for it? Yeah. Because it’s not just food.

    I’ll keep my camera with me, thanks.

  4. “disingenuous” is the perfect word to describe chang’s comment. thanks for your concise, articulate arguments. i have trouble getting involved in this kind of discussion because i get so worked up that i just blather.

  5. i agree – it’s a ridiculous policy. i’ll vote by not going on my NYC trip in Aug. Masa has the same policy and it’s ridiculous.

  6. […] – they might be the last (and definitely the best) pictures of a Ko meal since photos are now prohibited. It’s (obviously) not a policy I agree with. I’ll stick to Momofuku noodle bar or Ssam […]

  7. Bravo, UE. Just starting to research options for NYC and came upon your post upon seeing “No photos” on MK’s FAQ… such a shame indeed…

  8. @ Claudine: MK?

  9. loved this post. as a food writer/blogger, i’m still super self conscious when taking photos (no flash and take it as quickly as possible without being noticeD) – but have found that in many of the top 50 resto’s, just mentioning, “is it alright if i take some photos?” – they totally appreciate it and then allow you to go as trigger happy as you like – they even POSE for you (fat duck!).

    if you ever go to sadaharu aoki patisserie in paris, the sign that says “no photos” was my/my husband’s fault.

    on another note – a restaurant, hashimoto, in toronto – doesn’t allow photographs because the deal is that the food is truly a chef’s art on a diff level than many other restaurants – http://www.kaiseki.ca/ . i sort of ‘get it’ for this kind of place in terms of no photos . .

    in any case – great post :)

  10. @ gizelle: Thanks for your sentiments and for sharing those stories with me.

  11. gizelle,

    I’m not aware of a ban on photos at Hashimoto. In any case, the chef there has a setup in the kitchen to photograph (supposedly) every plate he sends out. When I last dined there, he emailed me a photo of every course afterwards.

  12. […] in America I have not visited.  And, given Brooklyn Fare’s chef Cesar Ramirez’s no photo policy, it’s doubtful that I ever will eat […]

  13. […] A knife can be a tool or a weapon.  A camera is no different. This is the one aspect of blogging on which I have commented before.  I really have nothing more to add. Share this:TwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  14. […] We exist in a capitalist society, where avenues of commerce – the food and beverage industry included – conduct what the market will bear. Evidently, the current market sustains the type of tasting menu-only dining experiences about which Kummer complains.  But, for those who disagree with a chef’s “autocracy,” they need not subject themselves.  We, the dining public, always have the power of the purse.  We can vote with our dollar.  I, for example, refuse to eat at momofuku ko and Brooklyn Fare because I object to the chefs’ policies on in-restaurant photography.  You make think I’m silly for doing so.  But I think it’s silly of them to forbid in-restaurant photography (more of my thoughts on this issue in a previous post). […]

  15. yep thats why i dont dine at any restaurants with stupid policies like this

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