By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS OFTEN FIND THAT SOME SUBJECTS HAVE A DISTINCT VISUAL SIGNATURE. That is to say, they instantly convey precisely what they are. The word iconic means something that stands as the defining symbol for its class and and category, signaling us in a moment exactly what we’re looking at. In architecture, some structures are, in a way, self-explanatory, and cannot be confused with anything else. Thus churches tend to look like churches, palaces kinda always look like palaces, and, for purveyors of twentieth-century pop culture, diners look, unmistakably, like diners. They bespeak informality, convenience, comfort, and, if luck holds, good eats. They also communicate immediate context and poignant memory for the camera.
Diners first appeared on the national scene in the 1920’s as horse-drawn wagons with food, then stretched out to resemble railroad dining cars clad in gleaming Art Deco chrome, all rounded corners, streamlined stainless steel, and mirrors. Lots of mirrors, like the ones in the ceilings, which allowed counter waitresses to quickly ascertain which booth needed a coffee refill. The eateries peaked just after World War II, when casual dining had become a national habit, the joints were finally attracting as many women as male laborers, and diner ownership served, for a time, as an affordable first business move for returning vets.
While most eating establishments are built like any other other structure, that is, on-site, working from a framework which is then layered over with different levels of support or decor, the classic American diner of the 20’s through the 50’s was produced modularly, much like an automobile. Indeed, the closest relative to the diner might be the Airsteam trailer, an edifice built as a single unit in a factory and shipped to its final destination. Over the half-century or so that diners dotted the national map, companies like Silk City, Kullman and Fodero manufactured compact, curvilinear eateries that were trucked, fully equipped inside and out, to their initial locations ready for business. Such was the origin of the diner you see in the above image (a Fordero diner…shout-out to New Jersey), which began its life near the Gibsonia exit of the Pittsburgh portion of the Pennsylvania turnpike. As the place was situated only seven miles from the neoghboring town of Mars, Pa., the diner’s owners decided to maintain the planetary theme, naming their joint the Venus.
Half a century later, another alignment of cosmic forces began to ready the Venus for a second life. Just as it was pouring its last cups o’ joe, the owners of a tony Minneapolis decor boutique called Modern Forage Workshop were getting pretty tired of the wretched view out their store window, which looked across the street to a dilapidated Taco Bell fronted by a seedy vacant lot. Mike Smith and James Brown almost simultaneously hit on the idea of obtaining a classic diner for the spot, but where to get one? Diner manufacturers were a speciality even back in the day, making their restoration even more of a niche skill in the twenty-first century. Smith and Brown sniffed about and unearthed Steve Harwin, a Cleveland tinkerer who had begun his career refurbishing high-end sports cars, then switched specialities when his European pals told him that diners were “the coolest things in America”.
Shipped to Harwin via flatbed truck and police escort (wiiiiiide load), the Venus was cleaned, sanded and primped for a second cross-country trek to the Twin Cities. As in the past, the local landscape determined the place’s new monicker, which celebrated the regentrification of both the HIawatha and LOngfellow neighborhoods to be christened the Hi-Lo, opening to rave reviews in 2016 and even opening a kitschy tiki patio around the side in 2018. Recently, my wife Marian and I caught a glimpse of the old girl out the car window en route to St. Paul and decided to circle back for a better look. One very intense plate of corned beef hash later, I betook myself to the opposite side of the street for the same vantage point that Smith and Brown once disdained, later celebrated. It goes without saying that the view is a helluva lot better these days.
And the coffee ain’t bad either.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I ALWAYS SCRATCH MY HEAD WHEN I SEE AN EATERY sporting a sign that boasts “American Cuisine”, and often have to suppress an urge to step inside such joints to ask the proprietor to explain just what that is. If there is one thing about this sprawling broad nation that can’t be conveniently corralled and branded, it’s the act of eating. Riff through a short stack of Instagrams to see the immense variety of foodstuffs that make people say yum. And as for the places where we decide to stoke up….what they look like, how they serve us, how they feel….well, that’s a never-ending task, and joy, for the everyday photographer.
Eating is, of course, more than mere nourishment for the gut; it’s also a repast for the spirit, and, as such, it’s an ongoing human drama, constantly being shuffled and re-shuffled as we mix, mingle, disperse, adjourn and regroup in everything from white linen temples of taste to gutbucket cafes occupying speck of turf on endless highways. It’s odd that there’s been such an explosion of late in the photographing of food per se, when it’s the places where it’s plated up that hold the real stories. It’s all American, and it’s always a new story.
I particularly love to chronicle the diners and dives that are on the verge of winking out of existence, since they possess a very personalized history, especially when compared with the super-chains and cookie-cutter quick stops. I look for restaurants with “specialities of the house”, with furniture that’s so old that nobody on staff can remember when it wasn’t there. Click. I yearn for signage that calls from the dark vault of collective memory. Bring on the Dad’s Root Beer. Click. I relish places where the dominant light comes through grimy windows that give directly out onto the street. Click. I want to see what you can find to eat at the “last chance for food, next 25 mi.” Click. I listen for stories from ladies who still scratch your order down with a stubby pencil and a makeshift pad. Click. Click. Click.
In America, it’s never just “something to eat”. It’s “something to eat” along with all the non-food side dishes mixed in. And, sure, you might find a whiff of such visual adventure in Denny’s #4,658. Hey, it can happen. But some places serve up a smorgasbord of sensory information piping hot and ready to jump into your camera, and that’s the kind of gourmet trip I seek.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN HIS WONDERFUL 1960 ROAD JOURNAL, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes Of Wrath, Of Mice And Men and other essential American novels, laments the passing of a kind of America in much the same way that a roving photographer might. “I wonder”, he wrote as he motored through one vanishing frontier after another, “why progress looks so much like destruction.” That’s a sentiment that many a shooter has experienced as he pans his viewfinder over the various fading scenes of a constantly changing nation. Steinbeck sang his ode to these vaporized hopes on the printed page. We freeze their vanishings in a box.
However, capturing changes in a rambling big hulk of a country encompasses more than merely mourning the loss of a forest or the paving of a paradise. Photographic testimony needs to be made on the evolution of even the America we feel is vulgar, or ugly, or strange, as well as on the disappearance of the buffalo. There can be a visual poignancy in seeing even our strangest, most misbegotten features dissolving away, and great picture opportunities exist in both the beautiful and the tawdry.
One of the strangest visual cultures that we see cracking and peeling away across the USA is the culture of eating. The last hundred years have seen the first marriage between just taking a meal and deliberately creating architecture that is aimed at marketing that process. Neon signs, giant Big Boys shouldering burgers, garish arrows pointing the way to the drive-through….it’s crude and strange and wonderful, all at the same time, and even more so as its various icons start to fall by the wayside.
The Courtesy Coffee Shop, baking in the desert sun just beyond the Arizona border in Blythe, California, is one such odd rest stop. Its mid-century design, so edgy at the start of space ships and family station wagons, creaks now with age, a museum to cheeseburgers and onion rings of yesteryear. Its waitresses look like refugees from an episode of Alice. It recalls the glory days of flagstone and formica. And they’ve been doing the bottomless coffee cup thing there since the Eisenhower administration.
Steinbeck, were he on the road again today, might not give a jot about the passing of the Courtesy into history, but restaurants can be interesting mile markers on the history trail just as much as mountains and lakes. Besides, when’s the last time a mountain whipped up a Denver omelet for you?
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.
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.
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.