Push the shutter release button and something unusual happens. No click, just a brief mechanical whir as the narrow slit in a silver drum rotates counterclockwise across the front of the camera. This is the Horizont, a Russian-built swing lens panoramic camera, the first of several devices I would own and use to take long sweeping views of my world.
What took my photography in this direction is hard to say. There was my earlier project, The Lake, which attempted to expand my perspective beyond what could be contained in a single view, a single click of the shutter. And I recall standing on the prairie or looking over Lake Winnipeg, camera solidly pointed in one direction, thinking that the experience of being here was so much larger and more powerful than the I could capture on a sheet of film.
It could simply have been a matter of collision, my ideas for an expanded view running head-long into yet another classified ad for a used camera in the Winnipeg Free Press. The year of impact was 1984. I still have the notes, jotted down as I made my phone enquiry:
bought 1 year ago – used
The seller, as it turned out, was William Eakin, a major Canadian photographic artist. It was my first encounter with Bill. We would frequently cross paths over the following decades, ever-so-casual meetings, often while walking down a street in Winnipeg. Yet I would always appreciate his words of encouragement and support. I left his house with more than a camera.
Krasnogorsky Mechanicheskiy Zavod (KMZ) in Krasnogorsk, Russia manufactured the Horizont from 1967-71. There were earlier versions dating back to 1948. And there were later versions as well, such as 1989’s curvy, plastic-bodied Horizon 202. In fact the camera is still in production, sold by Lomography as the Horizon Perfekt and Compakt.
The Horizont is classed as a swing-lens panoramic camera. When the shutter button is pressed, the f/2.8, 28mm lens swings across the front of the camera from one side to the other, taking in a 120º view. Inside the camera back, 35mm film wraps around a curved plate and is exposed evenly and sharply as the lens rotates.
Aperture and shutter speeds are set on concentric dials mounted on the top plate of the camera. There is no light meter, no electronics, no battery. Exposure needs to be determined with a separate light meter or, as I like to do, by pre-setting the aperture and shutter speed to match the lighting, whether sunny or cloudy or overcast.
A removable top-mounted viewfinder shows a full 120º view as well as a bubble level. On this all-mechanical camera, a large knurled knob winds the film and returns the spring-powered lens to its starting position.
The Horizont uses 35mm film, making it relatively compact and light. It’s easily handheld but handling it does require finesse. Gripping it as you would a normal 35mm camera results in knuckles appearing on either end of a photo that spans 120º. The camera was originally kitted-out with a bakelite grip that screwed into the camera’s tripod socket. My used camera wasn’t, so I improvise with a cheap, folding flash bracket, mounted to the tripod socket. The grip is swivelled towards the rear, allowing me to firmly hold the camera yet keep my fingers out of the picture.
The camera has another idiosyncrasy, although this one was unsolvable and thoroughly frustrating. On seemingly random occasions, a dark streak appears across the bottom of a negative, a sign that light is, somehow, leaking into the camera and fogging it. Whether bright or shady, with sun in front or to the back of the camera, it makes no difference. Fogging just occurs…or it doesn’t. It’s a crap shoot that can’t be fixed, a defect on the negative that can’t be repaired. If I am lucky, while printing the negative, I can crop out the offending strip of fog without losing what is important about the image.
Limitations aside, using the Horizont is a liberating experience. It seems so much closer to our field of vision than the limiting point-of-view of normal cameras. Being hand-holdable, it allows for quick decisive moment-style reactions to a scene. In fact, the camera has some serious street photography cred. It’s quick enough to capture people and sneaky enough to capture them unposed, unaware that the camera, pointed away from them, is actually seeing them at the side, as the lens swings around.
Out of this quirky camera came a photographic series with the lofty title Under Cassiopeia’s Chair. Quirky like the camera, this study is a mash-up of landscape and street photography, camera tilted every which way, connecting visual dots across the 120º span of the picture. In 1986, the entire series was shown in Firman/Kirton: Two Photographers at the Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre in Winnipeg. Work from the series was also in group exhibitions, including Photoperspectives ’85 at Presentation House in North Vancouver and Photography in Winnipeg in various then-Yugoslavian cities (1985-86).
My last Horizont pictures were taken in 1991, while honeymooning in France. It was a momentary revival. By 1986, I had largely put aside the Horizont in favour of different camera formats, for new ideas and fresh projects. Yet the camera and the visual path it allowed me to explore would influence my work, well, right up to the present.