Archive for July, 2007

Back of the House: A Photo Essay By Michael Harlan Turkell

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

It’s easy to like Michael Harlan Turkell. When the New York City-based photographer walks into Public (voted Best Brunch by TimeOut New York, by the way) he warmly greets the staff, already hard at work prepping for the long night ahead. It’s a little after 10 in the morning. Turkell apologizes for running late (he’s not that late). He was at the Greenmarket in Union Square and walks into the eatery carrying bags stuffed with baby Chioggia beets, green garlic, baby fennel, sugar snap peas, and French breakfast radishes.

Turkell sits down, sips on his coffee, and smiles, totally at ease. After this interview, he’s going to photograph pickles for Wheelhouse Pickles in Long Island City.

Talk about a cool gig.

At 26, Turkell has done something that most of us only dream of doing. He’s managed to combine his two loves, food and photography, and create a job for himself that actually pays the bills. He’s a self-described “culinary photojournalist.” And he’s happy.

Turkell’s latest project, Back of the House, is a tribute to the men and women who work behind the scenes in some of New York City’s restaurants—the folks most of us rarely consider as we’re inhaling pan-seared, sesame-encrusted Ahi Tuna steak. He’s shot in more than 100 restaurants so far, including Public, Butter, WD-50, Masa, and Daniel. “I want to illuminate the back of the house, I don’t care to illuminate myself,” says Turkell. “I’m not doing the hardest part of the work; I’m just lucky enough to be around it. I’m trying to open up lines of communication.”

Previously selected for the upcoming 25 Under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers to be published next spring, Turkell talks to SMITH about his series, a fish’s head, and life as a culinary photojournalist.

What kind of camera are you using?
The Nikon D200. It keeps the overhead low because it’s digital and you can shoot as much as you want.

When did you start taking pictures?
I didn’t even own camera until I was 21. I dropped out of the first school I went to. I went to [Boston University] for math and science and came back to New York and went to community college. It happened to be an elective that filled a spot. And I enjoyed it.

You used to work in kitchens, now you’re behind the camera full time, why the switch?
It was a combination of things. I had fallen and hurt my knee. I’ve had two ACL surgeries, so that constant pivot put that strain. The hours. It’s hard to hold on to not just relationships, but even friendships and acquaintances. All the people you hang out with are part of that counterculture. And I love the morning. I love being able to see the light of day. So I think the combination of those, and the fact that I was getting my BFA in photography, I thought, I might as well pursue this… And the way I wanted to learn, I didn’t necessarily want to be in one place. I was always looking for new opportunities, so it wasn’t hard leaving it because I know I can so readily come back to it.

How’s it going so far?
I’m still trying to get in magazines. It’s the steepest learning curve I’ve ever had. Cooking comes naturally to me, sometimes photography does as well, but the business doesn’t necessarily. I’m just trying to please the people. And I’ll bend over backwards for little or no pay sometimes just to make sure somebody is happy, and that isn’t necessarily the industry that thrives [in New York City]. But I like that I’ve been able to incorporate that hospitality that I learned in restaurants into photography.

Sounds like you’ve found yourself a dream job.
I’m still so interested in food and restaurants, and I didn’t want to stop learning. I pick kitchens and chefs and subjects because I’m interested in them. And I always wanted to have that as the defining drive behind my photography, that I’m actually interested in the subject that I’m photographing, that there’s some kind of deeper connection rather than a superficiality of the image.

It’s nice that I am able to get paid and also be in these kitchens that I wanted to cook in and learn from. It’s odd to say that I’ve actually made a job for myself. It’s still a struggle month to month, [but] I’m bombarded with work right now, which is a great thing.

Why did you want to capture the drama behind the scenes?
After having worked in restaurants myself, I know [the back of the house] sees little light of day, and also few accolades from diners. Not that I needed a pat on the back. It was just something that was never really shown or illuminated to people outside of the kitchen. It was easy to talk to people that I worked with, there was a comradery, there was a common ground, and understanding, but to tell someone what you did… there was very little illumination as to what went on. I thought it was an important thing to show and preserve. You always see food writers, but I didn’t see many—well, this is another self-proclaimed term—culinary photojournalists.

What’s the response been like?
I still shoot primarily shoot for the chef and for the people in the kitchen. And I’ll show them the photos, ask them what they think, if they think it’s a true depiction, and shows them in the right light. I will not show anything defamatory. There’s a true honesty in the industry, and I’m trying to keep that integrity so I only seek out places that I think have those values.

What makes a good image to you?
I think all of those values: honesty, integrity. I don’t think [the image] should have to be explained necessarily—that there’s a very distinct caption to it, that everyone comes to a common understanding of what is there, and something the people I took it with, among, and for agree upon. Not to say that an image has to represent some kind of majority. But I’m trying to create more archetypes, things that represent very specific points.

What do you consider off-limits to shoot?
It depends on the kitchen. If they say its off limits, I don’t photograph it. Once they feel comfortable with me, I don’t know if there’s much that’s off limits. There isn’t one specific thing across the board that everyone says don’t take a picture of. There are points in service where they’re like, “Can you stop,” and I’m like, “Of course.”

What’s the funniest or strangest thing you’ve seen through the viewfinder?
Once was actually right here [in Public]—it was around 9pm, which is usually a pretty intense time during service. It was busy, but a guy comes in the kitchen with a big black garbage bag—they call him Jersey Dan or just Dan, he’s a friend of the restaurant. He opens up the bag and in it is the head itself, of a yellowfin tuna, as big as my torso. I think it was a yellowfin tuna. But in the middle of service they just put it on table. I think they made a quick tartare. That was awesome. I think he’s brought in venison before—the whole deer. I think that was during the middle of service, too.

Ever miss the money shot?
No. I’ll just come back and try to get it another day. People are always going to eat. There have been plenty of times where I know I just missed it by a second, but that’s why I revisit and haven’t stopped shooting.

From whom, what, or where do you derive inspiration?
Like everybody else, I love to travel. And I’m inspired by simple, little things—like a neighborhood in Brooklyn that I’ve never been to. One of my greatest passions is being a pedestrian sometimes, strolling about and looking at minutiae. Just constantly learning. Right now I’m trying to get a wine palate. My girlfriend works for Food & Wine, and I’ve always been a beer guy, so just understanding wines is overwhelming. But I know what I like now. And I love factoids and little interesting quips and phrases; I just like little idiosyncrasies.

What’s the picture you’d most like to take?
I don’t know yet. I don’t think I ever want a single image to represent me. I shoot in series and try to release them as such. And though you look to have one picture that encapsulates it all—it’s great to have that single raw ingredient—I like putting them all together. That’s what I like about this project, it’s completely amendable and malleable, and it has so much flex to it that it’s not defined yet, which is really nice. I like it all. I like the combination.

If anyone could take a picture of you, who would it be?
I’m addicted to this guy Erwin Wurm. He’s very conceptual. He does these one-minute portraits. And I love all of the minuteness of it. The images speak to how quickly art can be made—and how long it can last afterwards.

What are the sites, photocentric or not, that you most love online? This guy Matt Bites he’s not only very fun to read, but he’s also an art director/photographer, and his images are just outstanding. But I hate saying web site this, web site that. I’d rather tell people where to go.

Where should they go?
In New York City, the Greenmarket, go to the Greenmarket, and rather than see something and buy it because you think its hot and fresh, taste it too. There are amazing specialty food stores. There’s a place called Sahadi’s, which is a spice trader on Atlantic Avenue. Awesome. Kalustyans, which is here in the City in Murray Hill. JB Prince for kitchen supplies. Kitchen Arts and Letters in the Upper East Side, it’s not just an antiquarian cookbook store, but they have some of the best international cookbooks. The James Beard House. They do dinners. Visiting chefs come from around the world, and you can go have dinner and taste an amazing array of foods.

A Place in the Crowd

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

parkslopetree.jpgI’m often one step ahead and two days behind, which is how I found myself reading the City section of the Sunday New York Times on Tuesday (confession: reading the Sunday Times in print remains a pleasure, even if it takes all week). The featured story is on what the kids are calling placeblogging, highly localized blogging, which often features a personal story. A recent story on a fallen tree in her neighborhood in Brooklyn, for example, led one blogger to ruminate on bird-watching trips to Prospect Park with her pop. Who places blogs more than anyone? Brooklyn, baby! “On a per capita basis,” Gowanus Lounge placeblogger Robert Guskind tells the Times, “we have more bloggers than any other part of the city, and more than anywhere that I know of. More than in Manhattan, and way more than in Queens.” For more on this excellent trend of people-powered neighborhood storytelling, check out

Speaking of crowds, and things I read in print, the July Wired has a fascinating piece called The Human Advantage. Via the lens of computer scientist named Luis von Ahn (who invented the anti-spam program Captcha), Clive Thompson explores how people-powered intelligence is making artificial intelligence smarter. An aside to this aside: von Ahn just launched a program that is a mind-blowing model of human efficiency. You know when you type in a few letters in a form to prove you’re human, not spam? In many cases, you’re actually typing in a small part of a book (a word that a computer couldn’t quite read when the book was scanned) as a part of the nonprofit Internet Archive project. It’s a great article which my confused description does not do justice. Just read it.

Park Slope tree from Flickr’s DavidGardinerGarcia.

Steve from Sex and the City

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

By Sabrina Rubin Erdely

Two years ago, not long after I returned to work post-maternity leave, I found myself at a Planned Parenthood gala in D.C. I felt like a tourist. Having just spent five months in my sweatpants, speaking in baby-rhyme with an infant hanging from my boob, I might as well have been an alien among these well-dressed people, with their wine glasses and their witty repartee. So as I sat down at my table, I was relieved to recognize the man seated next to me. Semitic, bespectacled, nebbishly handsome—I couldn’t place him, but a wash of warmth told me this was an old friend.

“Do we know each other?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said, playing along. “You look familiar, too.” Asteve.jpg couple of rounds of Jewish Geography got us nowhere. He smiled an impish smile—so familiar!—and threw up his hands in defeat, but I persisted: “Are you with Planned Parenthood?” That’s when his face changed to an expression that said, Oh wow, she really doesn’t know. In that instant, my brain woke up. It was Steve from Sex and the City.

My mind reeled. How couldn’t I have recognized David Eigenberg? For months I’d been seeing his face nearly every day, while catching up on Sex and the City during my daughter’s marathon nursing sessions. It had become my escape: I’d switch on the DVD player and forget for the moment all the ways in which I resembled a dairy cow, and all the terrifyingly powerful ways motherhood was changing me.

Instead, I’d plunge into a different life altogether, one that was hip and fast-paced and unapologetically self-involved—the kind of life that, I knew, I’d never have again. But even in my escape fantasies, a shred of reality had remained. Naturally, I’d latched onto the storyline of the only characters with a baby, Miranda and her sometime boyfriend Steve. The farther I’d gotten into the series, the more fervently I’d hoped these newly minted parents would get their acts together. Would they? I was nearing the finale, but resolution seemed distressingly far off.

Meanwhile, Eigenberg and I were having what felt like 50 conversations at once, because he turned out to be a madman who talked at warp speed, in one long run-on sentence: “I gotta tell ya I hate coming to Washington it’s such a slap in the face the Bushies running this country are such idiots hey are those NUTS on our salads are nuts even supposed to BE on salads—”

The night still held much in store. Later, on stage, Eigenberg would cap off a frenzy of pro-choice rambling by blurting out, “I have a PENIS! And my wife has a VAGINA!” (Polite applause followed.) Even later, it would be my turn to give a speech, and Jane Fonda would wink at me from the audience; later still, I would pose for a photograph with my tall, blond editor and the tall, blond One Life to Live star Heather Tom, with me standing between them, looking like a garden gnome. But for the moment, I had just one thing on my mind.

“Do you and Miranda get married at the end?”

Eigenberg actually shut up for a moment. “Do you want me to tell you?” he asked, cocking his head.

I thought better of it. I’d find out for myself, in my own time.

The Wisdom of Crowds and T-Shirt Slogans

Monday, July 9th, 2007

I’ve been following Assignment Zero since theaz.jpg day I met the Righteous Lauren Sandler and we geeked out over democratization of media. Basically, Sandler and a slew of other editors oversaw a crowdsourced journalism project which covered the story of crowdsourcing. Meta, right? Or, you know, “an experiment in open-source, pro-am journalism.” Wired is publishing some of the stories, and all of them are linked if you scroll down that post.

As resident book nerd, I’d especially like to direct you to this piece on crowdsourced creative writing. Novelist is one of the most solitary professions I can think of (exceptions notwithstanding) so it’s interesting to see what large groups of strangers come up with. From fantasy (I think?) to romance, it seems like results have been mixed but encouraging. I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open for books with hundreds of contributors.

drama.jpgWhen I’m not writing about books, I’m covering the next most highbrow forum for literary self-expression, the T-shirt. The Smoking Gun is giving the geeks some tough competition from bon-mot-adorned convicts in a neat mug shot photo essay. Brushes with the law are admittedly hot this week, but stay tuned, because soon they may both be blown out of the water by the 100% cotton cleverness of the Feminerdies….

Ron Paul Jumps the Shark

Friday, July 6th, 2007

For those of you who don’t follow politics to the point of nerdy obsessiveness that drives away all your relatives, friends and lovers, who begged you to stop checking your RSS feeds and shower and shave — uh, not that any of that has ever happened to me — a little background info: Ron Paul, long-shot Republican presidential candidate, is big on the Internet. Like real big. Like totally out of proportion to his zero percent poll numbers in the real world.

Mostly, this is achieved by having totally crazy supporters who, apparently, organize big Internet campaigns to drive his numbers up on Digg, Technorati, Facebook, YouTube, etc., etc., etc. Then they complain because the media is not paying attention to him and his huge Internet following — which is true. Because they’re crazy.

Anyway, one of his supporters on YouTube seems to have noticed, and has now made his first YouTube appearance ever, in order to ask his fellow Ron Paul supporters to stop being so obviously crazy. It’s many different kinds of awesome. Join us, won’t you?

Googling your crush

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

As some of you may already know, I am obsessed with Googling myself. I know, it’s terrible. But lately, I’ve taken this whole Googling thing to a whole new level: I’m Googling old crushes, friends, and enemies from 15 and 25 years ago.

Yup, totally insane, I know. But, it’s kind of fun to read about someone who you knew when you were, like, five. Take my friend Krissy from Iowa. The two of us became best friends when we were only four, and always thought we’d stay BFFs. Then I moved and we lost touch. I Googled her recently and found out she just got married. Useless information? No, not really, I’m really happy to know what she’s up to.

Krystal, my arch nemesis from the 5th grade, still lives in New Mexico, is also married, and had a kid. Still hate her? Nope. We were just different people—she was one of the cool kids and I wasn’t.

Oh, and dreamy Alexis, my long time cello playing crush from middle school. Sad to report, he’s married—gosh, I wasted a lot of time daydreaming about our wedding day.

While perhaps slightly distrubing on my part, I love knowing what these people are up to after all these years. Although I don’t know their entire story, it’s nice just to be able to read an exerpt. After all, at one point, these individuals played a major role in my mini universe.

So confess: have you Googled a crush?

This Is Not American Life

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

407899055_ac5a1c3a0d_m.jpgLike many of our readers, we love This American Life (even if Ira Glass didn’t cough up a six-word memoir, despite his agreeable reply to our request). And like you, we’ve been wondering: how could it be that no one’s parodied TAL yet?

The wait, to enjoy a cheesy expression, is over. Kasper Hauser, a four-man comedy troupe from San Francisco, the home of so many four-man troupes, presents American Life, a very funny spoof of Mr. Glass and Co. The parody of the Glass’s nerdy, staccato lilt is the main event, pitch perfect, and really funny. (Note to Glass: you better trademark that voice—after all, if Heidi Klum can have her legs insured…). The show below rolls through a couple of segments, like a guy who “makes paper mâché animals” and believes a unicorn should be a “unihorn.” And then brings it to DC to protest a new USPS stamp series. (It’s funnier than it sounds.) And next week on our program? “Cock blockers and wingmen, dispatches from the frontline of the dating scene.”

Listen here.

Thanks to the occasionally genius Very Short List for the tip.

Spooky Ira Glass from Flickr’s jvoves.

Three for the Fourth

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

1) Turns out Independence isn’t just for dead white guys. Today is opening day for Flying: Flying_finalevite.jpgConfessions of a Free Woman, the personal-story stuffed six-hour documentary by Jennifer Fox. Flying explores Fox’s life and those of women around the world: prostitutes, activists, friends, and filmmakers. Need more encouragement? A story in the Times calls it “part personal memoir, feminist manifesto and diagnosis of the state of Global Woman” and the tough-critic semitics over at HEEB are hosting a screening on Friday.

2) faces.jpgSpeaking of dead, white, and women, few get more attention than young, pretty ones who get killed. Indignant essays asking why have become commonplace, but ABC News has done one better. A feature on their Law & Justice page tells the stories of nineteen people murdered the same day as cable news sweetheart Jessie Davis. They include a baby, a grandmother, an aspiring ballet dancer—and even a pregnant caucasian.

3) Since we all know the 4th is less about independence (or, um, murder) than about meatcake01.jpgcopious cow consumption, I direct you to the best thing on the internet: the Black Widow Bakery’s Meat Cake, and the resultant community meat cake photo gallery. God bless America!

Get ready to Q it up on the 4th…

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

For some, the 4th of July is all about fireworks. Frankly, I don’t really give a hoot about fireworks—you seen one display, you seen ‘em all. And that goes for the big Macy’s display here in New York City. I know, it’s terrible, but that’s how I roll, yo.

Of course, seeing how tomorrow is a huge national holiday, and we at SMITH want to pay tribute, I decided the best way to honor the day would be to go through flickr in search of something that not only speaks to me, but also to every patriot: food. Specifically, BBQ.

WARNING: Vegetarians and vegans, you might not want to keep scrolling.

Below, check out how these regular Joes captured the spirit of America—with a of slab of beef. Mmmm. BBQ.

Happy 4th SMITHITES. Be safe.


182818769_26d6a405b0_m.jpg (more…)

Clink Slammer Hoosegow

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

This week’s question:

With Paris fresh out of the pen and Scooter Libby off the hook, we’ve got to know: what was your closest brush with the law?

Next week’s question:
Scooter, Dubya, Brangelina—bet your nickname’s better. How’d you get it?

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