When a restaurant is empty, is it still an eating establishment? Wijnanda Deroo’s portraits of vacant restaurants, taken in four of New York City’s five boroughs, reflect just as much on human habits—although people are conspicuously absent from her photographs—as on the spaces themselves.

Born in the Netherlands, artist Wijnanda Deroo currently resides in upstate New York. Her photographs are included in public collections internationally including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

“Inside New York Eateries” is on view at Robert Mann Gallery through January 29, 2011. All images © Wijnanda Deroo. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York.

* * *

Why did you decide to photograph empty restaurants?

In 2009, I was invited to take part in an event called “Dutch Seen,” a celebration of Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York. I was asked by Kathy Ryan, curator of the show and the photo editor of The New York Times Magazine, to do a project about New York City. I came up with the idea of taking photographs of restaurant interiors as a way to reflect some of the different cultures, neighborhoods, and people of New York. I wanted to make a kind of cross-section that I show from the most simple restaurant to five stars, with different cultures.

Where in New York are these restaurants?

I wanted to try to get a wide range of areas and types of restaurants. The show includes photos from all the boroughs of New York except Staten Island. I wanted to include restaurants that reflect their neighborhoods, like an Italian restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, or a Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Some of the restaurants I knew I wanted to include from the beginning, and others I found by walking around the neighborhoods.

Describe a photoshoot. When were these taken, so that the restaurants are prepped but empty?

I selected restaurants by the interiors to show certain types of eateries and different cultures and atmospheres. In the fancier/more expensive restaurants, I made appointments with the managers. In the smaller restaurants, I just walked in, either early in the morning or between three and five in the afternoon, when they were set up for dinner but didn’t have many customers. I shoot using existing light.

How did you decide to contrast such places as a bar in Grand Central station and a Papaya Dog hotdog restaurant?

I wanted to give as much status to both; the interior of a Papaya Dog deserves as much attention as a more expensive restaurant, they both represent and show New York.

Where are the people in these photographs?

Instead of actual people there is the presence of people who have been and will be there.

Are these portraits, still life photos, or sculptures?

These are portraits of New York City.

What are you working on now?

I just finished my book, Indonesia (published by De Verbeelding, Amsterdam), and I’m focusing on still lifes.


TMN editor Nozlee Samadzadeh is the internet’s only “Nozlee.” She grew up in Oklahoma, loves airports even when they’re miserable, and cooks dinner from scratch every day. More by Nozlee Samadzadeh