Under the Sun

'We're Not Going Out of Business,' Says the Owner of Duke Photography

'We're Not Going Out of Business,' Says the Owner of Duke Photography
Todd Grossman




People think Duke Photography is closing, according to Darrell Duke. People are mistaken.

“We’re not going out of business,” said Duke, a son of the renowned local portrait studio’s founder. “We’ve sold the building, and we’re moving.”


The Seventh Avenue photo studio — soon to be home to a Raising Cane’s chicken fingers restaurant — is the largest of its kind in the state, founded more than 70 years ago by Duke’s father, James.

“Dad got serious about photography in about 1950, working out of the family bathroom and a walk-in closet,” Duke explained last Thursday. “But pretty soon there were babies and diapers and no room for a home photo studio.”

The elder Duke leased the turquoise-aluminum-clad building in 1951, later buying and expanding it to include a garden used for outdoor shoots. The company, which Darrell joined as soon as he was old enough to push a broom, has been headquartered there ever since.

“Everyone Dad went to North High and Phoenix College with was getting married,” Duke explains. “They knew my father’s work with a camera, and they wanted him to photograph their weddings. The Goldwaters and the Fannins, all the up-and-comers of that generation.”


Visiting Duke Photography rather quickly became a rite of passage for high school seniors. “We shot generations of graduation portraits,” Duke said, pointing out how the company logo — a little gold crown — was stamped in the lower right corner of each print. “That was Dad’s idea.”

He laughed about the ubiquitous wicker chair featured in so many Duke portraits of the ’70s. “With the ficus tree next to it,” Duke was quick to add. “That was a very popular combination for a while there. We did that for the texture. And a lot of people wanted to pose with the ladder we had. That went on for years, seniors leaning against the ladder. I still have that ladder. I recently repaired it with a little Gorilla Glue and it’s out in the garden.”

The advent of digital photography didn’t hurt Duke all that much. “We saw it coming down the pike and knew it would change the industry,” he said. “But in the early days, the quality of the digital capture system just couldn’t hold a camera to film. With digital cameras, your exposure had to be exact, or it impacted the quality. Film was more forgiving.”

Duke sat out digital’s debut, waiting until its photo technology improved. “We weren’t on the cutting edge,” he said. “But our product was better because we waited. In the meantime, we still had people coming in for family pictures and senior portraits.”

One senior turned up with a snake. “It was a boa constrictor,” Duke remembered. “He draped it all around himself and then turned to the camera. That was interesting.”

Occasionally, in the old days, customers called to ask if Mr. Duke would photograph them naked. “My dad always looked forward to that call,” Duke said with a chuckle. “He would take the phone and say, ‘I used to photograph customers in the nude, but then I caught a cold. Now I wear socks.’ He just loved that.”

He said he’d been thinking about relocating the family business for some time. “Our Realtor put out feelers and we had an offer at once, for way more than I thought the building would sell for. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse.”

Duke didn’t want to talk yet about the studio’s new location, but promised to announce it in just a few weeks. Meantime, people are still going to need their pictures taken.

“Your hard drive might crash, or your disc with your photos on it might get scratched,” he said. “But if you’ve got one of our printed photographs, on a wall in a frame, it’s safe. It’ll always be there.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela