2016-01-01 / Features

Documenting diners

The classic American diner is elevated to pure art in a new exhibit by local photographer Chuck Fong, who has seemingly been prepping for this moment his entire career.
By Steve and Karen Deutsch

Photographer Chuck Fong has been capturing moments large and small for the people of State College for more than 25 years. He’s photographed graduating seniors, newlyweds and passport applicants, teachers for State College Magazine’s annual “Teacher of the Year” cover and many other defining moments in people’s lives. All the while, he has honed a talent for “street photography,” in which random encounters in public places are chronicled. And now he’s moved this unique art form off the street and into the diners of America with his new exhibit at the Bellefonte Art Museum, “Dinor Bleu: Devoted to the Diner.”

chuck fong at the diner in state college chuck fong at the diner in state college The diner exhibit, which runs Jan. 3 to Feb. 28, was more than six years in the making, with Fong becoming interested in photographing diners after seeing the iconic diner paintings by photorealist John Baeder. Baeder’s paintings and popular books, with titles like “Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats along the Way,” have become part of our cultural heritage. In addition, histories of the diner abound, including “American Diner: Then and Now” by Richard J.S. Gutman and “The American Diner” by Michael Karl Witzel. Fong spent hours leafing through those and others, catching the diner bug.

“Ralph’s Chadwick Square” “Ralph’s Chadwick Square” Early on in the project, Fong recalls sending his diner photos — all exterior shots — to Baeder, who responded, “Keep trying.” So Fong did. But the heart of the current exhibit didn’t come together until Fong’s friend and fellow State College photographer Pat Little looked over his collection to date and suggested that Fong “go inside.” Going inside was a good idea, Fong says, and just what he needed to make the project truly his. “The action is where the story is. Going inside made it like street photography.”

“Server at Tom & Joe’s” “Server at Tom & Joe’s” Fong photographed about 35 diners since beginning the project, going into the diners unannounced. He preferred to sit at a stool rather than in a booth, taking between 40 and 80 shots on each visit — and sometimes he even sampled the diner food, too. “There were probably about two dozen that I [took the time] to eat at,” he says, “although generally I don’t eat diner food.”

“Breakfast in the Red Rose” “Breakfast in the Red Rose” When Fong was working, he avoided talking to customers, although he did occasionally talk to the staff. When asked what he was doing, he’d say, “I just enjoy taking snapshots of diners.” The photos, with few exceptions, are not staged; Fong simply shot what he saw happening, noting that “sometimes I didn’t get anything but bad food.”

Bellefonte Art Museum Executive Director Patricia House heard about Fong’s diner photographs, and once she saw them she knew right away that the exhibit “Dinor Bleu” had to be shown. “I was shocked by his passion about American diners,” she says. “He spoke about visiting the same diner several times, getting to know the owners. I felt he was writing a history in photos — his medium. … But my interest was amplified by the idea of documenting a fading part of the American culture.”

Born in Hong Kong, Fong came with his family to East Orange, N.J., when he was 16 months old. Growing up, he was passionate about the New York Yankees, watching the greats play at Yankee Stadium, and can still recite the lineup of the 1960 World Series against the Pirates. What he wasn’t passionate about was photography. That came later, when he arrived in State College in the 1970s as a Penn State student. He started his college career as an architecture student but realized the road to get there was not for him. “I could see myself as an architect, but I couldn’t see myself going through five years of pure hell when I was told that college was supposed to be fun,” he says. “I went into art and took courses in ceramics, drawing, painting, graphic design and photography.”

Soon Fong honed in on photography. “I bought a 35 mm camera, and I was taking pictures of my friends and the people in the neighborhood.” After “an enjoyable four years at Penn State,” Fong graduated with distinction and was nominated to Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honor society.

Fong‘s first job took him to the Big Apple, to a studio on Park Avenue South, but it was not as romantic as it sounds. “I was shooting senior portraits. The students would put on cap and gowns, then snap, snap — 40 minutes for 20 students. I lasted six months,” he recalls.

Fong returned to State College, and since the early 1980s has operated a storefront studio that specializes in portrait and event photography. To hear him tell it, his first studio was hardly storefront. It was upstairs in an office building on Sowers Street. “I thought I was going to die up there,” he says. “People couldn’t find me.”

He quickly moved to the heart of State College, spending about five years on East College Avenue before moving to a space by Café 210 West. Today, his business, Studio 2, is located in Fraser Street Plaza, with a front-row view of the emerging Fraser Centre. Fong notes that in the beginning, his studio was the only game in town for portrait work. “It was studio work until the mid-1980s, when outdoor portraits really caught on and I went with it,” he says.

Fong also adapted as photography changed. “Early on, I used 35 mm film. Most of it was lost as I moved so many times. I shot in black and white exclusively. Some subjects look better in black and white, and it was cheap and I could process it myself,” he says. “In the early 2000s, I bought myself a decent digital camera. I don’t miss any aspect of film. Now I control the whole process. I shoot strictly in color and transfer to black and white through Photoshop.”

In addition to his local work, Fong has been under contract with a national company to photograph high school marching band competitions across the country, both action shots on field and formal shots afterward. “I do all eight sections and the color guard,” says Fong. “It’s November, you are out there 10 or 12 hours and you’re freezing. Each year I tell myself it’s my last.”

He has also had a couple of high-profile political gigs: first as a photographer for the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 1999, and then for the presidential inaugural balls in Washington, D.C., in 2000. “It was black tie for all events. We’d shoot one event, hop in a van and go on to the next.” It was fun, he concedes, but “I wouldn’t want to do it for a living.”

Beyond the contract work, Fong has a passion for street photography. “I like to capture people in their own environment,” he says. “Sometimes I have a fear of getting jumped and having my equipment stolen in big cities. I just avoid eye contact and keep moving. With street photography I work quickly. Totally unplanned. … Street photography is very different from making people look good in portraits.”

Some of these photos have been exhibited in previous shows, at the HUB-Robeson Galleries and at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Fong is a donating artist at The Palmer Museum of Art and is an artist/member of the Bellefonte Art Museum. Five years ago, he joined the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania as a way of exhibiting his work. Since then, he has been elected to its board of directors.

Little says Fong’s personality is no small part of his success. “His ability to adapt his personality to the people he is photographing is remarkable,” Little says. “It really is a gift, and the good photographers have it. He is also funny. I remember his ad for St. Patrick’s Day — Chucky O’Fong. I thought it was brilliant.”

Margaux Wolszczan, working artist and owner of the Fraser St. Gallery, echoes Little’s praise. “Chuck is very passionate about the fine art aspect of his craft,” says Wolszczan. “What differentiates some artists … is the ability to stay connected to one’s youth. To let that youthful energy come out and play is a gift, one that Chuck regularly utilizes.”

Fong himself feels his fine art photography has been influenced by Edward Weston, Diane Arbus (whom he credits with drawing his attention to different forms of beauty) and Edward Hopper, noting that the diner photos clearly show the influence of Hopper.O O ne photo stands out as very Hopperesque: an image of a seemingly isolated man staring through the dirty window, a wedding band prominent on his left hand. Fong’s exterior photos in the show often seem anachronistic, as if removed from a time in the mid-20th century and plunked down at an arbitrary location just today. That is especially prominent in his photograph of the Red Rose Diner with its “Ladies Invited” sign. His interior photos capture more than just the image, in the same way that a magnificent poem or piece of music evokes emotion and a nonlinear connectedness. It has the viewers each inventing a backstory. Consider the waitress past exhaustion who pauses with her head on the cash register, the other worldliness of the monk-like man reading and the juxtaposition of lives in the diner in the early morning hours.

Many of his diner photographs were shot in the early morning hours. “It’s the same five guys at six o’clock in the morning. Guys are staring into their coffee cups. Life is bad,” says Fong. “I looked at the photos and thought, ‘How depressing.’ After a while, I tried to get away from that. I began to show the whole gamut.”

The “whole gamut” included trying to capture the personality of each diner, as well as the changes that occur within the restaurant over 24 hours. “Diners change with time of day,” he says. “It would be interesting to sit in one place for the whole day and see how things changed over time.” •SCM

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