I am getting ready for a research trip next week to the Billy Ireland Comics Library and Museum at The Ohio State University, in Columbus. What am I researching? In a word: comics. Or two words: early comics. And I want to take pictures of them.

Most people don’t know or remember how wonderful the comics pages (or the funnies, they used to call them) once were. I myself was blown away when I saw my first Little Nemo in Slumberland strip (here are some cool examples). Perhaps because they were new to the whole new mass-media print-culture thing in the last years of the 19th century, the first comics pages were incredibly inventive: mindblowingly inventive.

Next week, I’m hoping to focus my work on three artists in particular: George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat; George Luks, one of the artists who drew the famous Yellow Kid and went on to become a member of the so-called “Ashcan School”; and James Swinnerton, a well-known figure in comics history circles but otherwise largely unknown.

I’m especially interested in what comics collectors call “one-shots”: comic strips that appeared only once, rather than repeatedly from day to day or week to week in a series. Because they did not end up being repeated, they tend not to appear in reprint collections or on the web. I’m curious, in particular, to see how these artists (especially Herriman, who was of mixed race and chose to pass as white) represented racial and ethnic difference. My gut tells me that they may have experimented with different approaches to the issue in their early one-shots that may inform my interpretations of their later, more well established strips.

Krazy Kat
Herriman’s Krazy Kat: satirical allegory of the African American experience?
Swinnerton, "And Sam Laughed," 1905: who gets the last laugh?
Swinnerton, “And Sam Laughed,” 1905: who gets the last laugh?

The Billy Ireland Library is a great place to find one-shots–as well as nearly everything else comics–because it has succeeded in becoming the largest repository of comics art in the world. They’ve acquired many large collections, most notably Bill Blackbeard’s San Francisco Academy of Comic Art, and so they seem to have everything. Which, obviously, I will not be able to look at in the week I’ve planned to spend there (the Blackbeard collection alone weighs a whopping 7 tons). Luckily, they allow non-flash photography for personal purposes. So I’ve decided that I’ll take pictures of the things I know I’ll want to read more carefully later, rather than spending my precious 35 hours next week taking meticulous notes on each item.

The problem is, these pages are large. They are huge. Each page of the comics section in those days was something like 16″ x 20″. And the writing is very small. My outdated-and-soon-to-be-obsolete iPhone4 is totally inadequate to the task. So initially, I thought I’d just borrow my generous-to-a-fault brother’s Canon Rebel (equipped with nice lens & so on). But the thought of schlepping the camera and my computer back and forth to the library each day from the apartment I’m renting for the week started to make me very sad. It was 4:10 on a Friday afternoon … my flight is on Sunday.

Then I drive by Service Photo.

Service Photo, Baltimore, MD (Falls Rd. north of the Avenue in Hampden)
Service Photo, Baltimore, MD (Falls Rd. north of the Avenue in Hampden)

This photo–which was taken by the store’s owner, so it is clearly not intended to look bleak and depressing– pretty accurately shows what Service Photo looks like from the street. When I parked my car in front of it, I was not sure if it was open, it looked so dark and deserted. Maybe it’s closed, I thought– for good. But then I thought I saw a light on inside, so I went on in.

Closed? Not by a long shot. Even though it was less than an hour before closing on a Friday (or perhaps because of this), the store was absolutely full of people, people trying out cameras, kibitzing with the staff (I noted no less than 3 people helping customers), talking to each other. This is clearly a gathering place for real pros and enthusiasts. I explained my needs to the one available person at the counter, and he recommended, without hesitation, the Nikon Coolpix S6800. For comparison purposes, he shot a letter-size advertising circular, without flash, with this camera and several cheaper ones, as well as my phone. The difference was amazing.  And I walked out of there with a new camera, bag, and 8Gb memory card, all for under $230 and in less than 15 minutes.

Nikon Coolpix S6800
Nikon Coolpix S6800: where have you been all my life?

(Incidentally, those of you who do the kind of research I do know how frustrating it is to try to get legible images from primary sources, whether by scanning microfilm, scanning originals, or taking photos of originals. I have been trying for some 15 years to find a portable, inexpensive solution to this problem.)

While I was “shopping” (“being convinced” is really a more accurate description), the guy at the counter happened to mention that Service Photo is the only photo supply store left in Maryland. Seriously? When I got home, I got on the web and while there do seem to be a few Ritz Camera locations still operating, he was right. How sad. I remember when camera stores were ubiquitous–in every shopping mall, and at least one high-end/professional supply store (like Service Photo) in every city of decent size. Des Moines, IA, where I grew up, had at least 2 nice camera stores in the 1980s. Isn’t it sad in the age of the selfie that most of us will never know how to do any better? I know I could have ordered the Coolpix online, but I would never have known what to get without lots of mindnumbing internet “research.”

So this is what I will now be taking with me to Columbus on my comics archive adventure.

The Chosen, next to Kevin's Canon Rebel
The Chosen, next to Kevin’s Canon Rebel (photos taken with aforementioned crappy iPhone4, incidentally)
The cameras in their respective cases ... I can practically fit the Coolpix case in a pocket!
The cameras in their respective cases … I can practically fit the Coolpix case in a pocket.

While size does matter, quality, obviously, is the most important consideration. The fact that I am going on and on about this silly camera shows you how impressed I am, but judge for yourself. Here is a photo I took in my living room, without flash, and without any subsequent correction of color, contrast, or light levels, of a 16 x 20″ facsimile of a San Francisco Examiner comics page from 1901, a “combo comic” featuring the work of Frederick Opper, Rudolph Dirks, and James Swinnerton.

San Francisco Examiner, 1901
San Francisco Examiner, 1901

There’s definitely a bit of skewing because the page wasn’t lying flat, but I think it’s pretty great. If you click on the image you can zoom in on the full size image. The text is as crisp as a cracker and you can actually see how the colors were printed in separations. As Sam (of Swinnerton’s “And Sam Laughed”) would say, “WOW!”

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2 thoughts on “The last camera store in Maryland?

  1. Love this post! You might have known this, but I taught a graphic-novel elective for a number of years, and also got into the history of comics. I’ll buy your book sight unseen! I’m also in the market for a camera.

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  2. Hey dude! Yes, you were way ahead of my times as far as graphic novels & comics go. I guess that makes you one of my influences 🙂 … for example, I did not get to Jimmy Corrigan, which you gave me lo those many years ago, until last summer. It blew me away. I’d love to see your syllabus. Have you stopped teaching the course? (Sad)

    As for the camera, it’s great not just for this purpose, but lots of other things too. I would say that its main limitation is that you can’t switch out the lens, so if you are planning to do “real” photography, you might want to opt for something higher-end. But I think it will do a great job with my research as well as photographing knitting projects for my Ravelry page ;-), so, good enough for me!

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