Celebrating a major milestone – my 40 year anniversary of photographing Diners

This year November 29th falls on a Sunday. Who knew that a tentative single 35mm photo taken on this same date 40 years ago in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, would lead me into a multi-decade mission to document diners (at last count 875 in my database) throughout the Eastern United States with my photographs.

Now granted, I have always had a fascination with diners that goes back to my early childhood in Medford, Massachusetts in the late 50s and early 60s. I recall going with my dad to a few local diners like Bobbie’s Diner and the Star Lite Diner, both on Mystic Avenue in our hometown as well as the Victoria Diner in Boston.

Bobbie’s Diner, 33 Mystic Avenue – Medford, Massachusetts
colorized image of the Star Lite Diner,
383 Mystic Avenue – Medford, Massachusetts
Victoria Diner, 1024 Massachusetts Avenue – Boston, Massachusetts

I also recall after Easter Morning Mass going for breakfasts with my family to Carroll’s Colonial Dining Car on Main Street, a large “L” shaped diner delivered in the early 60s that was a brand new replacement for a smaller stainless steel diner that the Carroll family had operated previously in the city from 1948, that itself was a replacement for an even earlier diner started in 1929.

Carroll’s Diner, 101 Main Street – Medford, Massachusetts

Later on during high school as well as years after graduating, Carroll’s was the go-to meeting place that was open 24 hours a day. Myself and my friends could be found there, day or night! So I can safely say that diners became part of my DNA, a constant throughout my life and by 1979, I started thinking about them in an expanded view. My pal, Steve Repucci and I started taking Sunday morning road-trips around the area and the first stop along the way was a local diner for breakfast. Soon, the task of finding a diner to have breakfast determined the direction of the road-trip.

All through the 1970s, I had owned one or two Kodak Instamatic cameras and never seriously looked at photography as a hobby. As 1980 began, I had been toying with the idea of getting into photography after being exposed to it by Steve Repucci who had been shooting 35mm photos for a number of years. So the first of two key events leading me to take that first diner photo occurred sometime in the Summer of 1980, when I co-purchased my first 35mm camera along with my older brother Steve. My friend and former co-worker Scott Drown was selling a used Mamiya 1000 DTL that he had been shooting with for a few years. So my brother and I alternated using this camera for around 9 months before I decided I needed my own camera and sold him my half.

a camera similar to what I used to take that first Diner photograph

The first couple of months I tested my wings by shooting scenic photos, etc. It was just a month or so into using that first camera when the second key event happened. Steve Repucci had decided to try living outside of Massachusetts and moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This happened on Labor Day weekend. Because I owned a van, I of course offered my services in helping with the move. This was my first ever trip down to the Keystone State. During that first visit to Pennsylvania, I had taken notice of one or two diners driving around the Capitol region. After that first trip a second one was already planned for Thanksgiving weekend.

Thanksgiving fell on Thursday the 27th that year. If I remember correctly, my brother Rick and friend Scott Drown accompanied me on that trip. We left not long after midnight on the 28th and drove out through Connecticut and New York on Interstate 84. In fact we took I-84 all the way to Scranton, PA to access I-81 south to Harrisburg. I recall hitting some pretty bad fog through that stretch of highway between Scranton and Harrisburg, possibly the worst I have ever attempted to drive through in my life. After arriving we rested a bit and visited as well as probably going out to eat somewhere and probably called it a day fairly early. The next morning we went to breakfast at the nearby By Pass Diner on Herr Street, probably around four miles or so from where Steve was living on North Progress Avenue. This is when I snapped my first photo of a diner. Little did I know this would be the first in what has turned out to be a few thousand photos taken in the next four decades!

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My first diner photograph, By Pass Diner, 1933 Herr Street – Harrisburg, PA

Well, the dam was broken and after I came home from Harrisburg I started going around the Greater Boston area and shooting photos of all the diners I knew of. Unfortunately, in my inexperience, I was insisting on using a wide angle lens in a lot of these early photo excursions. The reason I say it was unfortunate was that I was usually across the street using the wide angle lens and it pushed the subject a little too far away. Now in hindsight this seemed to work out OK as anyone who sees these early photos can get the perspective of seeing the diner in relation to its surroundings. And seeing that I am currently in a multi-year endeavor of scanning all my archive of diner photos, I have developed a way to create new versions of these photos by zooming in and re-cropping the image to represent the photo it should have been (and keeping the original version intact).

Here are a few of those early shots after Harrisburg…

Viv’s Diner – Malden, Massachusetts_November, 1980
Boston Street Diner – Lynn, Massachusetts_November, 1980
White Way Grill – Lynn, Massachusetts_November, 1980 a rare
early close-up only because the truck was blocking the view.
Unfortunately, I never got another shot of this the way it looked
here as new owners renovated the diner totally and lost
the original classic look…
Rosebud Diner – Somerville, Massachusetts_December, 1980
Apple Tree Diner – Dedham, Massachusetts_January, 1981
Salem Diner – Salem, Massachusetts_March, 1981

Since those early days I have used quite a number of different cameras to shoot diner photos including some Kodak Brownie and Dual Lens Reflex cameras that I have collected. Also two Chinon 35mm cameras as well as some small digital cameras. Since 2008 when I changed totally to digital, I have used my trusty Pentax DSLR, a couple of Nikon Cool Pix and my newest an Olympus Pen mirror-less camera. After changing careers in 1996, I have become proficient in using Adobe Photoshop to digitize all of my 35mm slides and am currently working on the early 35mm prints. I hope to complete the digital archive of all the diner photos within the next year!

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.

Minuteman-Diner-1
The Minuteman Diner, Bedford, Massachusetts.
An exterior view from November 29, 2019

Minuteman-Diner-2
The Minuteman Diner, Bedford, Massachusetts.
An exterior view from November 29, 2019

Minuteman-Diner-3
The Minuteman Diner, Bedford, Massachusetts.
An exterior view from November 29, 2019

Minuteman-Diner-4
The Minuteman Diner, Bedford, Massachusetts.
An interior view from November 29, 2019

Minuteman-Diner-5
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

bypass-diner_11-29-1980
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 .

LAC-1981
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….

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

Hightstown-Diner-2a
Hightstown Diner – Hightstown, New Jersey
Photo from May 31, 1982

Norm's-Diner-2
Norm’s Diner – Groton, Connecticut
Photo from September 18, 1982

Ruby's-Silver-Diner-3
Ruby’s Silver Diner – Schenectady, New York
Photo from October 2, 1982

Salem-Diner-5
Salem Diner – Salem, Massachusetts
Photo from May, 1982

Tom-Sawyer-Diner-1
Tom Sawyer Diner – Allentown, Pennsylvania
Photo from February 26, 1982