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Diners, "Down and Dirty": State College photographer Chuck Fong’s book pays homage to hometown staples of the American food scene

by on November 01, 2019 10:20 AM

Chuck Fong didn’t intend to publish a book chronicling the decline of the American diner when he started taking photos of these staples of the American food scene. In fact, he didn’t even intend to be a photographer at all when he first entered college.

Fong started out as an architecture student at Penn State, where he took a brief photography class that required him to take photos of buildings.

“That tweaked my interest and then the following summer I bought a 35-milimeter camera and just started taking pictures of my friends and random subjects,” he says.

Shortly after, he switched his major from architecture to art, a field that would allow him to further develop his burgeoning love for photography. Now, Fong’s been a photographer for more than 30 years and has a studio on South Fraser Street in State College.

Fong began photographing diners after he came across the book Diners by John Baeder. As Fong looked through what he assumed was a book of photographs, he realized the images were actually hyper-realistic paintings. The book inspired him to bring his own medium of photography to the subject of diners, but he still didn’t have the intention of publishing a book on the subject.

“Baeder is a true artist,” Fong says good-naturedly. “I was just some schlump with a camera taking photos of diners.”

However, as Fong took photos of more and more diners, he began to refine his photography process. Instead of simply jumping out of his car, taking a photo of the exterior of the diner and driving off, he began to plan the timing of his shoots more effectively.

“I would wait until dark or sunrise or the rain,” he says.

A friend saw his exterior shots and recommended Fong take his photography indoors.

“I knew what he was getting at. He was [telling me] the action is on the inside, not the outside,” Fong says. “I didn’t want to go inside, because that meant I had to sit there and eat and socialize. I didn’t want it to turn into a big project, but I thought he was right, so I started going inside.”

Fong began to take candid photos of diner patrons and, sometime after, he says the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County caught wind of his work. The museum invited him to do a show and promised to give him the entire downstairs gallery space, room for more than 40 photographs. He had one year to put together the pieces he wanted to display.

While Fong says he wasn’t immediately onboard, he liked the challenge and saw it as free advertising for his more regular photography work. The show ended up drawing 300 people and many encouraged him to put together a book. Realizing he’d had fun with the project thus far, he decided that might not be a bad idea. He embarked on a journey that would result in Dinor Bleu: The Vanishing American Diner, out now.

Over the course of two years, Fong made multiple trips to New England, photographing diners in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, as well as in Pennsylvania. He looked for the oldest diners, many of which were factory-built and shipped in one piece to their location. About a dozen of the diners that made it into his book are on the National Register of Historic Places.

“I probably visited roughly 50 [diners] just to do the book,” explains Fong. He then cut down the photographs to feature 43 diners. Some he visited aren’t included because they were too “perfect,” he says. Others were too touristy. “I was looking for the down and dirty hometown diners.”

Some of the nearby diners readers will find in Dinor Bleu include Tom & Joe’s in Altoona, a third-generation historical diner. The iconic former Diner on College Avenue in State College, now Hello Bistro, also makes an appearance, as does Baby’s on South Garner Street.

At every diner Fong visited, he ordered something to eat.

“There are some trips where I had to eat four meals in a row. The first diner on the route would be at 6 a.m. and I’d get a full breakfast, then [the second diner] would be an hour or so after, so then I’d get another full breakfast. Then the third diner would be around noontime, so I’d get a sandwich and a coffee. By the time I hit the last diner, [I was ordering] like a piece of pie and a glass of water,” he says with a laugh.

Overall, he says, the quality varied, but he had fun and found that he often stuck to a safe order of breakfast food – ham, eggs, toast, and coffee.

Fong ended up self-publishing Dinor Bleu and now sells it on Amazon and at the Bellefonte Art Museum. While the self-publishing arena was a challenge, he finds that selling Dinor Bleu has come with unexpected rewards.

“I’ve had complete strangers buy the book and they’ve said, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful and it brings back memories.’ That’s what I was trying to show, the actual inner workings of the locally owned diner,” he explains. “The joy and the frustration and the fatigue, the whole gamut. I’ve seen other diner books [where] the pictures are so posed … but that’s not how the food industry works, whether it’s fine dining or eating at a fast-food place. It’s tough work. That’s what I was trying to portray in the book and I tried to be very realistic about it.”

 

Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.

 

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