In social studies, home is referred to as the ‘first place’. The first significant building in our lives. Our place of work is the second.
The ‘third place’, then, is a social setting, a shared space for companionship and belonging. Depending on culture, that third place might be a church, a public library or a local park. In America, one of the most meaningful third places is the humble diner.
For years the beating heart of American culture, diners became a source of fascination for Chris and Jess on a road trip from Brooklyn to Maine in the fall of 2018.
Chris and Jess were seduced by the retro aesthetics and old-country hospitality. They felt the weight of the diner’s iconic role in artistic and cinematic history: from Edward Hopper’s depictions of after-dark customers in Nighthawk to scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The diner has hosted some of the defining cultural moments of the modern era. This third place is ingrained in American identity.
Diners pay timeless homage to the American Dream. They emerged in the 1950s, as road travel and eating out became popular. And they epitomised everything that America stood for: cultural diversity, ambition, and the open road and the possibilities it promised.
This third place is democratic. Professors rubbing shoulders with manual labourers, all in search of a hearty home-cooked meal and some genuine company. Generous portions of the food Mum used to make served with a smile and a friendly word. The diner is a home from home, a welcoming haven for everyone looking to be welcomed warmly and treated kindly.
The diners Chris and Jessica came across on that road to Maine were alive, radiating a sense of community and wholesome good spirit. A treasured communal space and a cross-section of the neighbourhood they serve, these third places reverberate 1950s optimism and charm.
Back in NYC, Chris and Jessica turned their cameras on the diners in Brooklyn and Manhattan, before expanding their focus to every diner accessible to them by train. Then, they rented a car. They drove through New Jersey for 24 hours, shooting the diners they encountered. Some in the dead of night.
But something was missing.
Gone was the bustle they’d encountered on the road to Maine. Gone too, the sense of kinship. Once the unshakeable core of the neighbourhood, home to weary travellers, hungry night workers, and families, these diners were deserted, ghostly quiet. The shabby cousin of their modern competitors, delivering comfort food to your door at the tap of a smartphone. No longer the third place, these eateries were now coming in third place in the race to feed hungry Americans.
It’s this Jess and Chris have captured in their photos. Not the cheerful retro glow, but the creeping darkness and cold of ageing. The fading light of a decaying tradition. Empty booths and neon lights flickering with a dull hum. Community disbanded and camaraderie evaporated.
In these photographs, we witness loneliness and isolation. Of the patrons, but also of the restaurants themselves, the last glowing ember on the block with few visitors to brighten their seats. Awash with a sense of foreboding and alienation. Uncomfortable familiarity tinged with the sensation that something precious, something vital is lost, leaving the viewer with the question of how we can get it back.