A small format camera is the photographer’s sketchbook, the place where ideas can be quickly explored before paint is applied to that big, forever canvas of the final print. Over two decades, my coterie of Nikon cameras and lenses ably served as my sketchbooks.
It started in 1978 with the purchase of a Nikon FE body, as well as Nikkor 24mm, 50mm, 105mm lenses and, no doubt the most important of the bunch, a 35mm PC-Nikkor lens. PC stands for perspective control, a feature that allows the lens to be shifted up and down, mimicking the shift movements of my Cambo and Wista view cameras. My Nikon system grew with the purchase of a Nikkor 200mm lens in 1979, a Nikon FM body in 1980 (to serve as a back-up to my FE) and a Nikkor 35-105mm zoom lens in 1986.
Nippon Kogaku K. K. (what is now the Nikon Corporation), introduced the Nikon FM camera in 1977, the first in a long-surviving range of semi-professional 35mm SLR (single lens reflex) cameras, all-mechanical, all-manual, wrapped in a compact, durable aluminum body. Although a battery is needed for the through-the-lens light meter, the FM otherwise functions without one. Focussing and exposure-control (via a simple three-LED meter visible in the viewfinder) is performed manually.
Nikon quickly followed up on the success of the FM with the more-electronic FE in 1978. Nearly identical to its mechanical predecessor, this one requires a battery. But it also offers the option of aperture-priority autoexposure. I set the aperture (f/stop) I want, and the camera chooses the shutter speed that will render a good exposure.
This was my sketchbook: eight pounds of cameras and lenses packed into a large Domke shoulder bag. They would be at my side from 1978 through to 2004. That’s 26 years of reliable service, on trips through Europe, across Cuba and throughout North America. The result would be a room stacked with Carousel slide trays, loaded with thousands of Kodachromes. This set-up would take me into a new millennium, through my early, awkward transition from film to digital photography.
I would also complete an important photographic project with the Nikons, albeit with just the zoom lens in my pack. The Trail Markers series was based on a number of solo day hikes and backpacking trips completed in 1986 in Manitoba and British Columbia. Each hike resulted in one or more panels of assembled photographs, depicting a particular landscape or cultural feature that resonated with me on my solitary travels. The series was shown in its entirety in 1988 at The Floating Gallery, in Winnipeg and in the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s group show 1987: Contemporary Art in Manitoba.
Trail Markers was a timely piece of synchronicity. My serious work was conceptually evolving towards ever-expanding views of my world, starting with formal view camera work, such as The Lake in 1978, and continuing through to the fleeting panoramas taken with the agile Horizont, just a year before Trail Markers. All the while, in the background, were the more casual sketchbook-style images collected during my travels with the petite Nikons. With Trail Markers, sketchbook and concept coalesced in yet another milepost on my photographic roadmap.