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Try the special. Heck, it's all special at the lunch counter at McAlpine's Soda Fountain in Phoenix. 1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100 35mm.

Try the special. Heck, it’s all special at the lunch counter at McAlpine’s Soda Fountain in Phoenix. 1/100 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100 35mm.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

BETTER MINDS THAN MINE HAVE LAMENTED THE HOMOGENIZING OF URBAN LIFE, that process by which uniqueness is gradually engineered out of human experience in buildings, businesses and products, to be replaced by the standardized, the research-proven, the chain-generated.

We all say we hate it. And we all put the lie to that statement by making the super-brands, all those golden arches and whole food superstores, more and more fabulously wealthy.

As a photographer, I feel a particular pang for the ongoing vanishing act that occurs in our cities. Who wants to aspire to take more and more pictures of less and less? Is a Starbucks in Kansas City really going to give me a profoundly different experience than a Starbucks in Jackson Mississippi? How, through creative location of the mug racks? And here, in the name of honesty, I have to catch myself in my own trap, since I also often default to something “safe” over something “unproven”. That is, I am as full of it as everyone else, and every day that I don’t choose to patronize someplace special is a day that such places come closer to the edge of the drain.

So.

It’s a delight to go someplace where fashion, and relevance, and context have all been rendered moot by time. Where, finally, just the fact that you have lasted this long means you can probably do so indefinitely. Such a place is McAlpine’s Soda Fountain Restaurant in central Phoenix. Birthed in 1926, the place was itself a part of America’s first huge surge of chain stores, originally housing a Rexall Pharmacy but centered around its fountain counter. The fare was, and remains, simple. No pondering over trans fats, no obsessing over sugar, no hair-raising tales of gluten reactions. Gourmet means you take your burger with both ketchup and mustard. “Soda” implies not mere fizzy water but something with a huge glob of ice cream in it. Thus your “drink” may also be your dessert, or you can just skip the meal pretense altogether and head right for the maraschino cherries.

McAlpine’s is a place where the woods of the booths are dark, and the materials of general choice are chrome, marble, neon, glass. Plastic comes later, unless you’re talking about soda straws. The place is both museum and active business, stacking odd period collectibles chock-a-block into every nook as if the joint itself weren’t atmosphere enough. But hey, when you’re a grand old lady, you can wear a red hat and white gloves and waist-length pearls, and if you don’t like it, take a hike, thankyouverymuch.

Three plays for a quarter, so you can eat "Tutti Fruiti" and listen to it, too. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Three plays for a quarter, so you can eat “Tutti Fruiti” and listen to it, too. 1/40 sec., f/1.8, ISO 100, 35mm.

Graced with a 35mm prime lens opened all the way to f/1.8 and great soft midday light from the store’s front window, I could preserve the warm tones of the counter area pretty much as they are. For the booths, a little slower shutter speed was needed, almost too long for a handheld shot, but delivering a more velvety feel overall. Both shots are mere recordings, in that I was not trying to “sculpt” or”render” anything. McAlpine’s is enough just as she comes. It was only a question of light management and largely leaving the place to tell its own story.

What a treat when a subject comes to you in such a complete state that the picture nearly takes itself.

Even better when the subject offers 75 flavors of ice cream.

Especially when every other joint on the block is plain vanilla.

follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.

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