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A self-portrait from Northforker photographer David Benthal.

There’s a lot that goes into telling a northforker story. In addition to the research and reporting, every piece needs a distinct visual element. Photographer David Benthal has a special eye for this particular brand of storytelling.

From spending time at sea with local fishermen to shadowing chefs around a busy kitchen, his photos not only help tell our stories, they tell tales of their own.

In five years, there’s no one person who’s had as much of an impact on the look of northforker magazine quite like Benthal, who takes the vast majority of the photographs.

Benthal, who grew up in Jamesport and now lives in Greenport with wife Alice Falcone, returned home after college without a real plan. While he graduated with a degree in anthropology, he says he didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life. 

“I changed my major five times, I think,” he said. “When I say anthropology, people make a correlation between the study of human beings and portraiture and I’d like to say it’s more thoughtful than that, but I don’t think it is.”

A portrait of Peconic Bay Medical Center’s Charlie Parker. (Credit: David Benthal)

While working at Love Lane Kitchen “waiting tables and roasting coffee,” Benthal started teaching himself photography. 

“I got tons of information from the internet and started messing around with it, and people started paying me,” he said.

But while people are often self-taught, there is a distinct artistry to Benthal’s work. 

“Studying and constantly ingesting and consuming different photographers and artists … I’m not a good student by any means, but I constantly [absorbed] all that,” Benthal said. “Probably the biggest thing for me was to try and reverse-engineer things I liked in order to teach myself.” 

Benthal looked at the work of artists he admired, such as famed magazine photographer Annie Leibovitz, to gradually build his own style. 

Like Leibovitz, Benthal’s focus is portraiture. 

“I connect with pictures of people more than anything else,” he said. “And I like the storytelling that can happen in an image of a person. Trying to make a fun photo of somebody I just met is always a fun challenge.” 

Benthal’s work for northforker, specifically, sometimes involves photographing people who aren’t used to having their picture taken, such as farmers or craftsmen. 

“I’m often taking a picture of a farmer who has maybe never been interviewed or photographed and is not used to it,” he said. “So that challenge of going in and making a beautiful picture of someone who has no experience in this is really fun and interesting.”

When photographing subjects for the magazine, Benthal also wants to make sure he’s staying authentic. 

“There also has to be a level of realism in there,” he said. “So I try to get a basic understanding of what’s happening in front of me.” To that end, Benthal has learned to let his subjects guide him and let him know if his direction is going off-course. “If I tell a winemaker to hold a tool or something in a certain way and they say they’d never do that, I want to respect that. I definitely try to direct a little bit, but the biggest thing is to get the person to be comfortable and confident.”

“He is far and away the most talented photographer I’ve met anywhere.”

EJ Camp

One highlight, Benthal says, was photographing a photographer. In 2018, he did a shoot for a story profiling EJ Camp. An Orient resident, Camp is known for decades of iconic celebrity photography, from Billy Idol to Julia Roberts, and in recent years turned her attention to shooting large seascapes. 

“Over the last 40 years, I’ve worked with a lot of young talent in L.A. and New York,” said Camp. “He is far and away the most talented photographer I’ve met anywhere. He has a natural feel for light, and an appreciation for how to bring out a character’s personality. He also has the kind of demeanor to make subjects feel comfortable in front of the camera. None of these things I’ve mentioned can be learned. That is all talent.”

Camp said being photographed by Benthal felt like a collaboration, rather than being directed. “A lot of photographers just bark at you,” she said. “They’re very commanding. And David kind of works quietly and lets the photograph evolve. It makes [a shoot] really pleasant.” 

Benthal’s photography extends to the iconography of the region. For a recent story, he shot the rustic, historic Hallockville Museum Farm, which has been kept largely the same for generations. To get the most out of the shoot, he looked for “vignettes” that helped tell the spot’s story. 

“It might be a broom leaning on a fireplace, something like that,” Benthal said. “I’ve learned with those sorts of spaces, or even [modern] interiors, there’s a temptation to go into a space like that where you shoot it like you’re making a Zillow post. But I think the more interesting things happen in the way the light hits a doorknob.”

Despite the thoughtfulness of his work, Benthal is quick to point out that he doesn’t think on some grand, intricately plotted scale. 

“There’s this temptation to say that, ‘I wanted to tell this story,’ but I’m not smart enough for that. I just think of framing a nice, pretty image here. I don’t know that it’s more thoughtful than really liking a little square, and this sewing machine is pretty, and the way the light is crossing. Vignettes are the way to go.”

That Benthal is a North Fork local has only helped put subjects at ease with him. 

“At this point in my tenure with northforker, people are becoming more comfortable with me,” he said. “They used to assume that this photographer with a mustache dressed in black just drove out from Brooklyn. No, dude, I was sitting at the bar next to you last night.”

Times Review Media Group content director Grant Parpan, who helped launch in 2012 and oversees the editorial content today, said it was clear very early on in his work with the brand that Benthal was a special talent.

“We all sensed that there was something uneven with the visual style of our earliest issues,” Parpan said. “[Associate content director] Michelina [Da Fonte] and I recognized that Dave’s photography had such a distinct and unique feel that it was a challenge placing his work next to other photographers, all of whom are talented in their own right. We thought, ‘What if we just give Dave as many of the assignments as he can handle?’ It really did, in my opinion, raise the quality of the magazine to an immeasurable degree.”

Parpan said he believes Benthal, who has shot every cover photo since the second issue, has made the single greatest contribution to the magazine.

“A lot of really great people deserve credit for making the website what it is,” Parpan said. “When I look at that print product, though, all I can see is Dave. His fingerprints are all over that thing. And those are some gorgeous fingerprints.”

As northforker magazine celebrates its fifth anniversary, Benthal said he continues to enjoy the work. 

“The magazine has given me the opportunity to be a full-time freelancer out here,” he said. “To do photography full-time … it’s huge.”