39 years of photographing diners (and other roadside stuff)….

On this day, 39 years ago (November 29, 1980) I took one 35mm photograph of a diner… namely, the By Pass Diner of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This event, small in comparison to others in the greater scheme of things, steamrolled into a multi-decade long odyssey that encompasses thousands of photos of 870 plus diners throughout the northeast United States down through the mid-Atlantic states as well as small pockets in Tennessee and Florida.

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The By Pass Diner of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Photo from November 29, 1980

I have been in the process of scanning and in some cases, re-scanning the library of 35mm prints and slides, to digitize the archive. In looking back on some of the older photos, including that first one, I am delighted in how these have held up as time goes on. The slides have been scanned but the prints are only partially complete. My hope that now that I am semi-retired, I can make more inroads in the scanning project.

Now when I started this little research project of documenting diners, I will confess that I was a “diner-snob”. Of this I mean that I would only take photos of classic factory-built (prefabricated) diners. The ones built between the 1920s through to the 1950s. Initially, I sort of ignored the newer ones (1960 -1980) and have been kicking myself ever since for not including more of these. As time went on, I did get quite a few of the newer ones and just wish I had gotten more. I also started including storefront and on-site built diners as subjects for my photos.

That being said, in honor of the 39th anniversary of taking my first diner photo, I decided to take some photos of a “Diner” that is about to open within the next month.The Minuteman Diner, located on The Great Road in Bedford, Massachusetts had this honor. I had been reading earlier this year that Ed & Diane Cohen were taking over the spot in a commercial strip-mall that had housed a D’Angelo Sub Shop and planned to open it up as a diner after renovations and updates to the spot were complete. The Cohen’s plans were to open sometime in August, but these plans had a slight detour due to unforeseen building code requirements that set them back a few months. These problems have been alleviated and they are waiting for the town to sign-off and allow them to open.

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The Minuteman Diner, Bedford, Massachusetts.
An exterior view from November 29, 2019

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The Minuteman Diner, Bedford, Massachusetts.
An exterior view from November 29, 2019

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The Minuteman Diner, Bedford, Massachusetts.
An exterior view from November 29, 2019

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The Minuteman Diner, Bedford, Massachusetts.
An interior view from November 29, 2019

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The Minuteman Diner, Bedford, Massachusetts.
An interior view from November 29, 2019

I had contacted Diane the other day and told her I was planning on showing up this morning to take photos. When I got there, I had a nice conversation with both her and Ed and am excited to see them do well as there are no other breakfast and lunch places in town other than McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts and various sandwich places. I am definitely planning to make a return trip or two when they open up soon….

Marking 38 years of documenting Diners with my photographs

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My first attempt at photographing a diner. In this case, the By-Pass Diner of Harrisburg, PA – November 29, 1980

It is still amazing to me that the photo featured above would ever snowball into hundreds if not thousands of photos over a span of 38 years (and that’s just counting the diner photos). Truth be told, this was not my first 35mm photo as I had taken other scenic & miscellaneous shots in the 3 or 4 months prior to this one.  But the above photo represents various forces that had finally coalesced into a 38 year personal crusade to document not only the American Diner, but other roadside buildings and businesses before they disappeared.

To this day I will tell you that I am not a technically trained photographer, I still basically employ a point and shoot kind of approach. But I can say that I am a camera geek and own many cameras. From a collection of Kodak Brownies and Instamatics, as well as five or six 35mm film cameras and close to a half dozen digital cameras. This also is curious because I can recall my feelings were quite ambivalent about photography back in the mid-to late 1970s.

These feelings toward photography started to change after meeting my long-time friend and travel companion, Steve Repucci. Our paths crossed toward the end of 1976 when I started a new job at Analogic Corporation, a company I had previously worked for briefly when I was still in High School in the Spring of 1970. We did not connect right away as we were in different departments. In fact I first became friendly with Steve’s brother Scott (who also was employed there) before I eventually socialized with Steve.

Steve and I had bonded a little at work thru passing conversations in the coming months of 1977 into early 1978. This bond was sealed further during an impromptu  camping trip to Lake George, NY on June 24, 1978. We found out that we were kindred spirits who enjoyed taking road trips, etc. I learned that Steve had been an avid photographer using 35mm cameras since his time in the U.S. Air Force during the early 1970s. By 1980, I had seen quite a lot of his photographs and was totally inspired to get into it myself.

So by the Summer of 1980 I had heard that a friend was selling a used 35mm Mamiya 1000 DTL, (which coincidentally was Steve Repucci’s first 35mm camera). I actually went and bought the camera with my older brother Steve and we shared it for about 1/2 a year before I sold him my half and got a new camera. The Mamiya was the camera I used for all my diner photos from November 29, 1980 into the Spring of 1981 when I got the first of two Chinon 35mm cameras. I later graduated to owning two Pentax 35mm cameras, the last one was my go-to camera until 2008.

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A Mamiya 1000DTL similar to my first 35mm camera .

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A photo of yours truly standing in Medford Square (Medford, Mass.)
Possibly the only photo showing me with the Mamiya 1000 DTL 35mm SLR.
(1981 Photo by Joe Fortunato)

Since that first photo of the By-Pass Diner, I have gone on to document over 860 diners, most are factory-built classic diners while others were home-made or on-site establishments. I have photographed some old neon signs and various roadside buildings as well.

I started to experiment with digital photography circa 2000 or so while continuing with film cameras. Gradually I was taking more and more digital shots for a few years until the last roll of film came out of the Pentax with photos from 2005 thru 2008. I realized that it was not worth using the film cameras anymore and decided to make the switch totally when I bought the Pentax K200 Digital SLR at that point.

This brings me to 2018 and I now carry 3 digital cameras in my bag. The Pentax K200 DSLR, a Nikon Coolpix P7800 and the newest – a Olympus E-PL29. This last one is a brand-new retro version of an Olympus PEN model that was very popular for years, starting in 1959. I have yet to shoot any diners with this one as I have had a skin ulcer on my left foot since the end of July which has kept me in a cast. When the foot is healed I hope to get back out and take some photos.

Also, in the last 2 years or so I have been diligently scanning all of my 35mm slides and prints to create a digital archive. I have completed the slides and am now slogging thru the prints. The prints take more time to scan, clean and enhance. It helps to have patience to do this because it is very gratifying to see the finished image. This process has made me appreciate the early diner photos even more. I am pleasantly surprised at how decent a lot of these shots actually are. The following images are some of my early favorites….

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Collin’s Diner – Canaan, Connecticut
Photo from October 3, 1982

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Hightstown Diner – Hightstown, New Jersey
Photo from May 31, 1982

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Norm’s Diner – Groton, Connecticut
Photo from September 18, 1982

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Ruby’s Silver Diner – Schenectady, New York
Photo from October 2, 1982

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Salem Diner – Salem, Massachusetts
Photo from May, 1982

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Tom Sawyer Diner – Allentown, Pennsylvania
Photo from February 26, 1982