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Local artist brings diner culture alive

Local artist Chuck Fong traveled across the country to photograph the unique structure, distinctive interior and workers and customers of American diners.
Local artist Chuck Fong traveled across the country to photograph the unique structure, distinctive interior and workers and customers of American diners. Photo provided

It doesn’t get much more American than a stainless steel, plastic-seated diner. “Dinor Bleu: The Vanishing American Diner,” a new exhibit at the Bellefonte Art Museum, will explore the unique tradition with a collection of photographs.

Local artist and professional photographer Chuck Fong shot and chose the works that are part of the exhibit, which features 40 photographs and is on display Jan. 3-Feb. 28.

The exhibit also includes audio and historical information about each diner and narratives that describe Fong’s experiences finding diners to photograph and interacting with the workers and patrons.

“This is an important exhibition because of several factors: the quality of the photos, the humanity demonstrated in the photos (diner employees and patrons), and the period of Americana that is brought to us by this exhibition,” said Patricia House, Executive Director of the Bellefonte Art Museum. “Chuck spent several years locating and documenting the diners. Many of them are now closed, heralding the reality of change in our society; from small, personalized eateries to common, corporate based food systems.”

40 photographs are part of the exhibit

The classic diner — in decline since the fast food industry growth in the ’60s — was usually operated by a sole proprietor who served basic, home cooked food for good value. This once popular mainstay of American culture is rapidly disappearing from our landscape. The diner’s role in American culture is brought alive in this exhibit, featuring photographs that evoke the gritty Depression era “greasy spoons” to the illuminated, sleek, shiny rockets of the late 1950s.

Diners were invented at the dawn of the industrial age to serve meals to factory workers on the late shift. The black and white photographs in this exhibit of diner cooks, waitresses and clients show the twilight to midnight starkness of this era.

The exhibition came about from a discussion House had with Fong about his photo work. Fong is on the Bellefonte Art Museum’s artist registry and they discussed doing a solo show for him when he mentioned his fascination with diners.

The show feels like a time capsule of the mid-20th century.

Patricia House, executive director of the Bellefonte Art Museum

“For me it’s not only the striking images of the exterior of the diner buildings, but the powerful photos of the people; mostly alone, gritty and reflecting a variety of working lives,” House said. “The show feels like a time capsule of the mid-20th century.”

Since the early 1980s, Fong has operated a studio specializing in portrait and event photography. His business, Studio 2, is located in Fraser Street Plaza in State College. He is a preferred vendor/photographer for Penn State and since 1991 has photographed high school marching bands at their annual national competitions.

Fong has shown at the HUB-Robeson Galleries and at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts Juried Exhibition.

Fong’s interest in photography started while he was an undergraduate at Penn State.

“Then I bought a 35 mm camera and was taking pictures of my friends and people in the neighborhood,” he said. “Street photography is very different from making people look good in portraits.”

Fong became interested in photographing diners after seeing the iconic paintings of John Baeder. In contrast, he has taken his photography inside — using techniques honed through years of street photography. He has photographed 30 to 35 diners since starting the project six years ago, taking 40 to 80 shots on each visit.

“It is a stunning and important body of art work and historical record,” House said. “I am hoping we can travel the show to other venues. In the last decade, there have been two shows of diner photos in various places, but in my opinion that work is not as interesting and technically not as good as Chuck’s.”

Programming during the exhibition will include an opening reception noon to 4:30 p.m. Jan. 3, where diner food will be served. The afternoon will also include a free art class for children from 1-4 p.m. and an interview with Fong about memories of visiting diners at 3:30 pm. Tapes of the interview will be available later for sale.

Also scheduled are sock hops on Jan. 22 and Feb. 19 to feature the music of the period.

IF YOU GO

  • What: “Dinor Bleu: The Vanishing American Diner”
  • When: noon-4:30 p.m. Fridays-Sundays or by appointment, Jan. 3-Feb. 28
  • Where: Bellefonte Art Museum, 133 N. Allegheny St., Bellefonte
  • Info: www.bellefontemuseum.org
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