Photographing America’s diners: When nostalgia becomes political

Maspeth, N.Y., 2017. (Photo by Leah Frances)
Maspeth, N.Y., 2017. (Leah Frances)

Leah Frances has spent the last 10 years photographing America’s diners. Her American Squares, as she called them when she first started sharing her images on Instagram and later, in 2019, in a book of the same name, are “sticky snapshots … with big cars, gleaming diners, neon signs, the open road,” she told In Sight. “[They are] a romantic and idealized mythology of America that I felt was somehow based in the past and which I probably formed through watching too many American movies as a child.”

This week, Frances is releasing her second photo book. Called Lunch Poems, it is a continuation of what she started with American Squares, but with, this time, a more political undertone. Most of the photos that make up Lunch Poems were made between 2016 and 2021 — during Donald Trump’s presidency and the covid-19 pandemic. Little has changed in how Frances frames her squares of Americana. The plastic stools and booths, the old-fashioned jukeboxes, the colorful wallpapers, the evocative neon signs are all still there, often photographed when the light of the setting sun envelops all of these elements in the warm tones most associated with memories.

These objects and places might not have changed between American Squares and Lunch Poems, but for Frances, these icons of Americana have become mixed up politics. “When making and editing Lunch Poems, the influence of nostalgia on a segment of the American population, who seemed to want to get back to something that was felt to be better about the past, to get back to “great again” as a plan for the future, had become almost deafening,” she said. “In the edit, I attempted to highlight our political divide by emphasizing empty spaces that one might define as particularly American — such as diners,” she said. “I honed in on sites where we might gather, if we could agree.”

The work also hints at the environmental crisis. “It is always looming in my mind,” Frances said. “As our business emptied and closed during the pandemic, the world began to look almost post-apocalyptic to me. I was thinking particularly about extreme weather events: forest fires, flooding, the warming climate and the resulting economic disruptions and food and water insecurity. Would the world become uninhabitable? How would that look?” So in one photo (above), Frances pressed her lens against a window. “We see the man-made object, the jukebox, but it is not being played. And we also notice the plant life.” For the photographer, through the reflection, “it looks as if it is grown over, the plants are overtaking a vacant human world.”

This photo, and many others in Lunch Poems, might create a feeling of sadness, but that’s not Frances’ intention. Instead, the artist hopes that people will ask themselves: “Can we reach any kind of agreement? Is there any ground to move forward? It’s hard to imagine, but what other choice is there?”

Lunch Poems, by Leah Frances, is published by Aliens in Residence.