Nancy A. Scherl: Dining Alone In the Company of Solitude

Published on 04/19/2022

“Dining Alone: In the Company of Solitude draws attention to the disillusion of the stigma of eating alone. The book invites us to explore the evolving human condition of the individual and the diminishing deference, yet need, for the company of solitude.” —Laura Wzorek Pressley

Nancy A. Scherl's color photographs of people dining alone evoke a certain curiosity. What are the individuals thinking? What are they observing as they eat their meals and watch fellow diners? Is this a favorite pastime to collect their own thoughts, or are they waiting for someone, or are they lonely? The viewer does not know their stories, though they have them, everyone does.

This long-term project spanning three decades, culminated during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the book reflects the subtle shifts in fashion and the look and personality of restaurants from particular eras. Her images also call upon the viewer to reflect on the multiplicitous layers and implications of solitude. Does it reflect isolation and absence, or imply confidence and self-care, or all of this?

As household demographics change across decades, and definitions of behavioral norms shift, the idea of spending time with oneself also increasingly defies assumptions. In her essay, Scherl notes, "Cultural shifts over time and generations have changed the acceptability of being alone in public, slowly erasing stigmas that are dismissive and contribute to a person being or feeling invisible. One can hope that enjoying solitude will overtake loneliness in our public alone times. Still, loneliness and alienation when experienced privately are often invisible."

As Scherl points out, there are inherent issues of perception (from self or observer) that contribute to the complexity of spending time alone. "Dining alone for a woman or man is likely a meaningfully different reality. Age, race, culture, the country where one is dining, and one’s personal life circumstances necessarily have a bearing on the quality of experience when dining alone."

In an intimate dedication to her mother at the end of the book, Scherl shares some of what she learned from her mother as she continued to move through life after her husband's premature death, a foundation to this body of work. "My mother demonstrated what making peace with being on her own meant. I learned from her not only that life carries on and people can adapt to unexpected circumstances, but also that valuable growth can happen in alone times, including the benefit gained from facing one’s self in solitude."

While many of the images evoke a sense of nostalgia, the second portion of the book is decidedly current, focusing on images taken in a one-year period from spring 2020 to spring 2021, highlighting the move to outdoor dining and further isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In part two of her essay, she speaks eloquently about the universal transformation to the restaurant industry, as well as to the exaggerated nature of what it meant to dine alone now in the midst of isolation and distancing and separation on every front. "While aloneness is built into human life–at least in the moments just before birth and as we die–the pandemic poignantly reminds us of our mortality and that the fragilities of life do not discriminate. We are perhaps paradoxically reminded that even in our aloneness, we are very much connected with each other exactly because of our very existence and vulnerabilities."

Nancy Scherl will be donating 50% of all of her book’s proceeds to the following charitable organizations: CaringMatters provides an array of programs and support to elders, families and loved ones who are facing life threatening diseases, and those who are grieving. The organization serves the Montgomery County sector, in Maryland. Jasa serves older adults in New York City and provides critical services to over 40,000 people annually.