These Photos Of America’s Best Diners Are Americana Without The Nostalgia

“Someone once told me that my work is like that of an anthropologist, finding things and symbols that are from that time and comparing them to how they feel today.”

Leah Frances is a photographer behind a popular Instagram account, American Squares, and the author of a book with the same name. “I couldn’t believe that name wasn’t taken,” she told us from her home outside Easton, Pennsylvania. Frances got started on Tumblr in 2013, after seeing some photographs by Stephen Shore when she worked at the Wall Street Journal.

“I was so blown away that I went out and bought a camera and flew out to LA and walked around taking pictures.”

Her work focuses on the interiors of diners — the very American restaurants modeled after the café cars on trains and grew in popularity in the early half of the 20th century. “My photographs are mostly empty of people, yet pushed-back chairs or half-finished meals on tables show that life did occur here,” she said. “Pictured are scenes where things once happened, never happened, or might still happen. Yet I don’t want us to be buried in collective amnesia: Things were never ‘normal.’ For example, if a political figure, even if they’re wealthy, if they sit beside you at a diner and eat a $4.99 hamburger suddenly they’re authentic. They’re working class. But of course, we all know it’s more complicated than that.”

Frances said her interest in her subject matter comes from having grown up consuming a steady diet of mid-century American film, though she lived in Canada. “I was really curious about how those symbols I saw growing up were represented today,” she said. “Someone once told me that my work is like that of an anthropologist, finding things and symbols that are from that time and comparing them to how they feel today.”

“I feel like if you don't know my work, it reads as nostalgia, which I'm kind of trying to get away from,” she said. “There's a whole other side of it.”

The locations she chooses are particular. Left behind by declining economies, the diners also reference an idealized American mythology. “I do always frequent the places I photograph, which I think is important,” she said. “I like to sit and watch and spend time and spend money and experience the place while I'm taking these photographs.”

We’re sharing her photos here as we start 2022, and how businesses and communities are faring in the neverending pandemic years.