End of an Era: The Last Camera Store in Cedar Rapids Closes

Photo Pro had been a staple of the Cedar Rapids community for nearly 40 years, and was the last camera shop for nearly 200 miles. It’s not just the loss of Photo Pro, but the fact they were the last of a dying breed.

Anyone who knows me is likely to be aware of my tenuous history with Photo Pro. While I do not lament for the owner, I do for the employees and the community. All the same, I want to reflect back on the impact local camera stores had on my journey as a photographer.

Me, working the front counter at Photo Pro, 2009
Photo courtesy of Levi Zinser, shot on Kiev 4M

The year is 2009. I’m working as a supervisor at a Staples store — ironically also now closed. My work life had become more and more stressful, and I needed a change. At the same time I started to truly understand my passion for photography. I’d owned a DSLR for about three years, and this hobby was starting to seem like something more.

I knew the basics, and for the first time I felt like I was starting to grow. It was this realization that drove me to start spending time at local camera stores. These early interactions shaped my career as a professional photographer.

When I got started, we had two camera shops: Photo Pro and Porter’s. I didn’t find Photo Pro welcoming to a young photographer who wasn’t interested in weddings or portraits. Instead, I found my home at Porter’s. The staff seemed to both understand and appreciate the drive of a young photographer who wanted to shape his own path.

The spring and summer of 2009 is both a blur and one of the most significant periods of my development as a photographer. Much of this is thanks to the knowledge and kindness of Porter’s manager, Paul Adams. While Photo Pro filled me with doubt and skepticism, Porter’s welcomed me with understanding and encouragement. I found mentors that would inform my growth as a photographer for the next decade.

Porter’s put up a hiring sign in the middle of 2009. Paul asked me to apply and — even though I knew it would be a pay cut — I jumped at the opportunity. The thought of being immersed in the stuffs of my passion was inconceivable. To live and breath it was almost too good to be true. Sadly, it was. At least at that point. The bosses swooped in and filled the position. So, the dream was shattered.

But, “Life, uh, finds a way”

A month later, in pursuit of the newly released Nikkor 35/1.8 DX, I found myself back at Photo Pro. On this trip I interacted with an employee about my age who didn’t seem quite as judgmental as some of the other employees. They didn’t have the lens, but he said he would call me when they had another one. Sure enough, I got a call the next week. Same guy helped me again. As I was trying out the lens, I overheard him talking with another employee about tech specs on a camera and I corrected them. After confirming that I was correct, he told me to apply since they were looking for someone. Following a rather stiff and uncomfortable interview, I was hired.

Levi Zinser helping a customer at Photo Pro, 2009
Nikon F100 w/ Tokina 17mm f/3.5
Ilford Delta 100

I started on my 21st birthday, a point of early strife between me and the owner. I worked there for about 10 months. While it was far from the dream I had envisioned, it wasn’t without rewards.

The employee who told me about the job? That was Levi Zinser, one of my best friends to this day. He and I bonded over art and the joy of photography. Levi was also the first person to get me to photograph live music.

The rest of the staff was older, but what they lacked in personality they made up for with experince. Most importantly, experience with film. I had never shot with film as an adult, so I was quite curious. At the beginning of 2009 I picked up a Nikon N2020 with a macro lens I was after — a lens that’s still in my kit to this day. I shot a single roll of film through that camera. It turned out awful. So bad that I sold the camera shortly after. Despite an initial bad experience I was still curious if film could create good results. It might seem weird today, but in 2009 film was largely considered dead. By this point Most photographers switched to digital and weren’t looking back. It was easily five years before the mass resurgence of film happened.

With the sage advice of my Photo Pro co-workers, I discovered my love for film. It stared with a cheap 35mm SLR similar to my digital — a Nikon N65 that cost me about $20. After running a few rolls through it and being generally happy with the results I moved up to the more professional F100. From there I went to medium format with a Bronica ETRSi, and then to large format with a 4×5 monorail view camera. The growth and experience I had in those 10 months helped shaped the photographer I am today.

While personal conflicts brought my tenure at Photo Pro to an end, what I learned opened a new world to me. That kept me going. Most of the people I worked with thought learning film was silly, but the experience lit a fire that burns to this day Although it needs occasionally stoking.

Paul Adams at Porter’s, 2010
Bronica ETRSi w/ 75mm f/2.8 PE
Ilford Delta 400

Fast forward a few years to 2012. I was given a second shot at my dream, and actually got hired at Porter’s. It proved to be what I hoped it would be — a welcoming environment for a young artist. I learned the value of being a teacher. Unlike at Photo Pro, I had co-workers less experienced that me. It wasn’t that our staff at Porter’s was less experienced. I had grown. I didn’t realize just how much I had developed as a photographer until I was back working in a camera shop. The years in between had be filled with learning, I wasn’t the amateur anymore.

Sadly, the dream had to come to end. At the beginning of 2013 Porter’s closed, just 8 months after I started. The loss of Porter’s still seems fresh. Our cohort was passionate about photography in a way that Photo Pro wasn’t.

The departure of Porter’s bought others a little more time. Iowa City’s University Camera shuttered in 2018, and now Photo Pro in 2020.

So, what’s next?

The void that is left isn’t exactly about being able to buy new cameras locally, but losing a resource for the community. Will we miss out on future photographers because we don’t have a camera store to get kids excited? If I didn’t start going into Porter’s in 2009, and didn’t have someone like Paul sharing his knowledge and passion, I wouldn’t have kept at it. I hope as 2020 comes to a close, and we eventually move past COVID-19, our community will have the space for another camera shop. I think having a space like that is vital to the creative community.

For now, I will focus on doing my part to keep the passion for photography alive in Cedar Rapids. I’ve opened my darkroom for business and I’m always down to answer questions about film shooting and developing. I hope having a local source for film developing, scanning, and printing will keep people shooting for now. We never know what the future might hold.