John Baeder photorealist painting of diner with car in front

John Baeder: Immortalizing the American Roadside Diner

John Baeder is renowned for his realist paintings of Americana, particularly diners and typical roadside shops.

But unlike many of the other landscape painters of the early 1970s, Baeder was deeply connected to his chosen subject matter. (He has said it chose him, rather than him choosing it.)

His work is part of the Photorealist movement of the late 1960 and 1970s. The style continues into this day. Phtotorealism is a form of realistic painting, derived from the use of a photograph as a tool. (See my previous post that explains it in more detail.)

Baeder wouldn’t describe himself as a photorealist, though.

In his book Diners, Baeder said, “In a sense I am a representational landscape painter and not a photo-realist. I paint the landscape, … I represent an image that impresses me. … I am labeled ‘photo-realist’ because I use the photograph to do a realistic-looking painting. .. ‘Photorealism’ is just painting – representational painting and not “ism” painting.”

He didn’t want to create exact representations. He wanted to make a statement about the human condition through his painting. He did that with a focus on the important artifacts of American culture.

The movement of Photorealism put a spotlight on everyday landscapes and artifacts.

Baeder’s diners, gas stations, tourist camps, and mom and pop restaurants would have been seen as laughable by much of the traditional New York art establishment at the time – the 1960s and 70s. (John Baeder’s Road Well Taken). That risk in subject matter and break from the norm are part of what made the works of the Photorealists groundbreaking.

Baeder’s Early Years

John Baeder is from the South. He grew up in Georgia. He has warm, childhood memories of diners and developed a strong interest in signs, with a fascination in typefaces and personal touches. He sees hand lettered signs as the imprint left from humans.

@gmmebbq – Baeder’s Instagram account on typeface and lettering

View this profile on Instagram

John Baeder (@gmmebbq) • Instagram photos and videos

Baeder began to document with his camera long before he decided to paint. His early photographs included signs, (he has a book dedicated to images of handmade signs), but also people, interacting on the street, in front of houses, storefronts, and eventually diners.

Seeking out diners on back roads and small towns of America in his free time, Baeder embarked on road trips with his camera, covering most of the eastern US. Sometimes he had a destination, sometimes the diners just found him as he randomly chose which road to follow.

He became an art director in advertising, but his interest in photography grew. When he moved to New York in the early 1960s he became aware of the FSA-style documentary images. (Farm Security Administration “an extensive pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944.”)

Baeder closely identified with photographers who worked for the FSA. He said that is perhaps “why so many of [his] paintings have a “documentary” look rather than a “painterly” look”. (Diners)

“I think of the photograph in the way a writer thinks of notes (Road Well Taken). His passion for painting prevented him from seeing his photography as high-quality works of art in their own right.

Baeder said “the photo was not the subject for my paintings. The diner is the subject…The pictures I take are visual notes, thoughts, feelings.”

What He Loved to Paint

Donald Kuspit argued that Baeder’s camera was used to realize an “aspect of the social landscape that we take for granted, making us aware of its reassuring meaning in our lives.” 1Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way: The Paintings of John Baeder. Edited Jay Williams. 2007. UMiss Press, p20

He is more concerned with the content of his subject matter than other Photorealists (such as Richard Estes, who claims no love of his subjects, doesn’t enjoy looking at them, and would tear some of the buildings down – but is drawn to the challenge in painting light.) 2Linda Chase and Ted McBurnett, “The Photo-Realists: 12 Interviews”. Art in America Special Issue Nov Dec 1972. P73-80

Baeder found early inspiration in postcards. “They were inherently both nostalgic and surreal, a reminder of the America that existed up to and perhaps of the decade or two beyond World War Two. Baeder was drawn to these idealized visions of a perfect roadside world.”

He felt deeply compelled to paint postcards. He said the postcards, of diners and tourist camps, “were begging to become high art.” (Road Well Taken) And that takes place through the act of painting them.

Williams argued that Baeder, in his subject matter, provided a sincere authentic view of the lifestyle of unpretentious everyday people, expressed in a style parallel to the 19th century realism. Like the 19th century Realists, Baeder painted subjects that were seen as unworthy and despised as lower class, or seen as ridiculous and unattractive. (Road Well Taken)

For Baeder, diners were unpretentious expressions of American culture.

Baeder explained that he loved the banal, expressing his respect for the culture of the common folk and devotion to the middle class and blue-collar workers.

Sharing His Message, Through Diners

Baeder saw diners as “temples to a lost civilization, not just restaurants where you’d grab a quick nibble. He said he finds sacredness in diners.” (Diners)

Jay Williams explained that “..each diner has a distinctive personality… however ordinary that face, it has a certain individuality…”  “Diners are, after all, friendly, all-too-human places in an increasingly unfriendly and inhuman .. world,… places to celebrate the values of the ‘sacred small town’. He understood intuitively that diners across America should be interpreted more as expressions of spirit than as matter.”

Baeder often included a choice of parked cars to communicate the variety of personality types in diner patrons. Some paintings had hidden symbols – icons that mean something to him and friends, such as signs on trucks or diner names that he changed.

In his later work and final diner paintings, he removed the cars and some of the relationships with people. He felt this drew the viewers’ attention to the environment and something as simple as an oil spill on the pavement. He removed all but the most necessary signs.

“By eliminating nonessential signage, cars, and other elements, he would omit potential distractions from essential relationships. Whatever remained as subject matter in these paintings, simple as these elements might be, would be the diner and whatever in Baeder’s estimation gave it meaning”. 3Williams, Jay. 2015. John Baeder’s Road Well Taken. NY: The Vendome Press. p234

Baeder was trying to share a love of the subject – more so than recreating the photo. He wanted to use the paintings as a way to garner appreciation and protection for the diner and the way of life that they afforded, at risk of being lost.

baeder paintings hanging in his show at ACA gallery . painting of streetscapes.
Chadwick Diner car painting
ACA Gallery. New York City. Feb 2023

He is one of the few Photorealist artists – or Representational painters – that has taken a stance with his subject matter and is using his paintings and platform to draw attention to diners and why we want to preserve them as a part of the American everyday landscape. They add to our sense of place and provide a splash of personality in an increasingly placeless commercial landscape.

Do you have a favorite diner? Can you find a picture of it? Did John Baeder paint it?

Resources

Books covers and links of works by and about John Baeder

Baeder, John. 1978 and 1995 reprint. Diners. Harry N Abrams Press

Williams, Jay, Ed. 2007. Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way: The Paintings of John Baeder. UMiss Press

Williams, Jay. 2015. John Baeder’s Road Well Taken. NY: The Vendome Press

See The Art Story.org for a history and timeline on photorealist artists

Sultan and Kalina Photorealism 1969 to Today

Check out James and Karla for incredible images and stories of New York City’s mom and pop shops! Photography meets preservation, meets Humans of New York, with a backdrop of the cultural landscape.

  • 1
    Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way: The Paintings of John Baeder. Edited Jay Williams. 2007. UMiss Press, p20
  • 2
    Linda Chase and Ted McBurnett, “The Photo-Realists: 12 Interviews”. Art in America Special Issue Nov Dec 1972. P73-80
  • 3
    Williams, Jay. 2015. John Baeder’s Road Well Taken. NY: The Vendome Press. p234

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