Pete's Ice Cream Ely, Nevada
by John Margolies
Gary's Thick Shakes
by John Margolies
There’s no hot weather delicacy quite like ice cream. It’s the milky frozen goodness our midsummer dreams are made of, the only thing worth eating when the heatwave really hits. To honor the one true savior of the sweaty, we sought out a timelessly retro ice cream homage fit for framing. And like every ice cream lover, we wanted options, so we’re serving up TWO vintage art scoops—Pete’s Ice Cream Ely, Nevada, and Gary’s Thick Shakes, both shot in the 1970s by American photographer and chronicler of classic roadside resplendence, John Margolies.
Let’s pull over first for a stop at Gary’s Thick Shakes, a glimpse of Gary’s Ice Cream of Jacksonville, Florida, which you might recognize from one of our earlier editions. That old school hand-painted lettering on the sign speaks to the thighs we aspire to (made all the more achievable by an extra scoop of ice cream). Of course, it also promises a masterful milkshake—rich, velvety, so sweet and so cold William Carlos Williams probably would have rethought those plums if he’d had a Gary’s shake in hand. The mimetic sign, outlined in unlit neon lights, is the sort of architectural flourish Margolies had a special fondness for. It tempts passersby with a symmetrically swirled, stacked hill of soft serve in a wonderfully geometric wafer cone.
That idealized ice cream shape is backgrounded by telephone wire, a little fantasy vs. reality reminder. The paint of the lettering is also flaking. Margolies was sad to see these eccentric sorts of structures disappearing from the American landscape, and he wanted to capture them before they were gone, in all their fading glory. There’s just enough detail included in these shots to balance whimsy with a bittersweet hint of bygone eras.
In Pete’s Ice Cream Ely, Nevada, a perfectly groomed pile of snowy vanilla sits atop what looks like a wafer cone. The giant confection is traced in a track of neon lights, but as with Gary’s Thick Shakes it was photographed during daylight—Margolies preferred to shoot on clear, sunny days to limit visual distraction. The slightly askew cone echoes the sense of movement in the wisps of cloud in the sky behind, giving the sign a strange celestial presence, like a hovering deity of dairy. If it weren’t for the pole and the sliver of tree tops Margolies thoughtfully snuck in at the bottom, Pete’s Ice Cream might err on the surreal.
There are layers of nostalgia baked into each of these ice creamery sign images. For many Americans, ice cream is a nostalgic treat by nature. Maybe that’s because it drums up childhood memories. The neighborhood kids might all be emoji fluent these days, but they still flock to the sound of the ice cream truck. This frosty dessert is forever kid-friendly. (PSA: these prints would be mighty happy-making on your wee one’s walls.)
Because the spots pictured in Gary’s Thick Shakes and Pete’s Ice Cream were both likely built in the 1950s (Gary’s for sure), these images bring to mind ice cream parlors, diners, and soda shops—where teens would hang in the 30s, 40s and 50s, sipping on something cherry-topped or clustered around a jukebox. At the time Margolies captured them almost thirty years later, they were already tinged with nostalgia. Looking back on Margolies’ photographs now is to witness the artist’s own wistful remembering, once removed. The effect is a richer, more complex kind of nostalgia, seen through the prism of several different decades.
Whether you’re a cone or a cup kinda person, you'll find that Gary’s Thick Shakes and Pete’s Ice Cream Ely, Nevada are exceptional images that bring the nostalgia and, if you ask us, give ice cream proper appreciation. Battle the brain freeze and buy them both. They’ll make a sweet addition to any art collection—gallery quality vintage photography is versatile like that. Just don’t blame us if you find yourself seeking out some peak-summer soft serve. (We’ll see you at the Mister Softee truck.)