I’m a sucker when it comes to a great opening song. Whether it’s a band slamming their foot on the gas pedal to fire their record off the starting line, or a more nuanced approach, the opening minutes of the album are what makes me buy a record on vinyl or forget it altogether.
As far as side one track ones go, nothing tops Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” The opening piano notes quickly escalate into a cascade of sound that defines the entire “Born to Run” album. Conversely, the opening track on M83’s “Saturdays = Youth” is a slow burner designed to prepare the listener for the ten perfect, pseudo-ambient electronic songs that follow.
Other incredible openers on perfect albums include “So What” by Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain,” “Keep it Hid” by Alice Clarke, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” by the Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News.” Really, any first track that Lindsey Buckingham was involved with between 1975 and 1992. Here’s a fun fact – I was once in a car accident at 4 a.m. in West Virginia wearing the same Hugo Boss tuxedo worn by Buckingham in a GQ magazine spread in the early eighties.
But I digress. This is a camera site.
I recently had the misfortune of being reminded of another great album opener – “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” on Elton John’s towering “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And the death that made me think of this particular song was the death of my Nikon L35AF.
For the last few days I’ve been hoping that the prognosis regarding my favorite camera wouldn’t appear as terminal as it seemed. I’ve had plenty of cameras break before — it comes with the territory when shooting decades-old cameras. But now I find myself in a unique situation; having an honest-to-god emotional reaction to the loss of a camera.
As I sat holding my crippled camera, the opening notes of “Funeral for a Friend” began sounding in my head. Elton John wrote it as the music he envisioned being played at his own funeral — an ego-driven self indulgence I could appreciate. It’s cinematic, grand and excessive, which is to say a perfect representation of Elton in the seventies. Eventually the eleven-minute song transitions into “Love Lies Bleeding,” a hard driving breakup epic that’s a reminder of how amazing rock music once was.
Death, breaking up, loss, regret, anger. Am I really feeling all of those things for a camera? That’s what I’m trying to find out.
“Oh it doesn’t seem a year ago/To this very day”
As I was re-entering the world of film photography — years before I joined the staff of Casual Photophile — I read James’ article on the excellent point-and-shoot Nikon L35AF, a camera nicknamed “Pikaichi” (top notch, in Japanese). I must have read that article two dozen times (it’s still one of my favorite articles on the site). This one particular camera seemed perfect for me. Its design was concise, it had a famous lens, and it offered at least some creative control.
I was on a lunch break in 2016, and after wandering to my local camera shop saw a Nikon L35AF under the glass. The price tag read $50, which I all but threw at the salesman during his half-hearted sales pitch. I walked out of the store and reveled in my purchase. It felt fantastic in my hand, with the perfect amount of weight and balance. Over the next years I would take it with me on trips to the beach, around Virginia, and on vacation to Germany.
I’m not going to go into the technical specs of the L35AF because James expertly covered that in his review. I have to admit though, I’ve never really cared about technical specs when it comes to cameras like this. I knew the camera’s lens was famous for its sharpness and contrast, and that was enough for me. To this day I couldn’t tell you its minimum aperture, range of shutter speeds or what kind of meter it uses. I know it has a switch for adding two stops of exposure, and the ability to adjust the ISO. Slow down! You struck gold back at the lens!
If you were to ask me to describe why I feel so devoted to the Pikaichi, I would struggle for a verbal answer. If you want to know why I love it, look at the images I’ve made with it. They’re not perfect, but they’re exactly what I wanted them to be. What else does an automatic camera need to do?
I have memories of taking specific pictures with the Pikaichi, which is something I can’t say about most cameras. I remember holding it in front of a back-lit lighthouse on the Outer Banks, or in a poorly lit blacksmith’s forge in George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Both times I grabbed the exposure compensation lever, said a prayer and clicked the shutter. Both times I got back images that are among my personal favorites. The Nikon L35AF takes pictures I like, in spite of its limitations. I’ve come to prefer it’s nearly constant vignetting, occasional misfire, and frequent battery replacements.
“Oh it kills me to think of you with another man”
A few months ago I went through a Marie Kondo-inspired tidying-up of my camera stock. It seemed irresponsible to have all these cameras when I’m really only using one or two with any regularity. I decided to take the bulk and list them for sale online.
Unfortunately, I failed to apply Kondo’s “does this bring me joy” principle to all the cameras I listed.
When going through and choosing the cameras I would sell, the L35AF ended up in the group to be sold. I ignored the emotional connection I had to the camera, instead focusing on its reputation for selling for up to three times what I paid for mine. I considered that to be a nice return on my investment and listed the camera.
It sold faster than I expected, but I was happy to pocket the profit. I packaged it up and shipped it off to southern Germany. But I started to feel regret immediately after sending it off. I remembered all the experiences I’d had with the camera, and after looking at my website realized that it had been responsible for two or three of what I consider my best photos. Had I really just ignored all of that for some pocket change?
Almost on cue, the buyer messaged me saying that the camera was inoperable. No matter what she tried, it just wouldn’t work. I tried to explain that the Nikon L35AF can be a finicky camera requiring extra love. Sometimes the battery door needs to be wiggled, or scrubbed with a toothbrush. But no matter how many troubleshooting tips I provided, she couldn’t make the camera work and asked for a return, which I happily gave her. Opening the returning package was an even more satisfying feeling than buying the camera three years ago.
And then I re-listed it a few months later. Don’t ask me why. There’s a glitch in my brain that makes these things happen.
Since it had sold so fast the first time, I decided to increase the asking price. Once again the camera became the most viewed item I was selling. Offers started coming in, usually for far less than I was asking. I confidently rejected them until they started getting closer to my asking price. I started experiencing stress in my stomach that usually happens right before something bad happens. Wiping the cold sweat from my brow, I deleted the camera listing. I had jumped off this cliff once, but luck (and a finicky battery door) had been my lifeline. This time I decided not to jump at all.
“Everything about this house/Was born to grow and die”
Because I had kept my Pikaichi I made a promise to myself that I would shoot it more often. While I had once considered it the perfect companion to my Nikon F4, I often found that the film I’d planned to shoot through the little guy ended up being fed to the bigger one. Then the batteries inside the F4’s terminals leaked on a transatlantic flight and rendered the camera inoperable. Now that Batman was sidelined, it was Robin’s time to shine.
I loaded the Pikaichi with Fuji C200 and relaxed in the sauna of less control and greater photographic risk. The experience of shooting the Pikaichi came flooding back, where my biggest decision was film choice and whether or not to use the exposure compensation switch. I was so pleased with the experience that I went to my local film store and bought three rolls of Pancro 400. After spending the requisite three hours it takes to rewind a roll of film in the camera, I loaded up the Pancro and hit the shutter button to advance the film to frame one.
The film started to advance, then continued to advance for almost as long as it had been rewinding. I opened the back and found the entire roll had been unwound even though the film counter was stuck on “S.” I racked my brain for a memory of this having happened before, but couldn’t recall one. I stood on the street pulling the film out of the camera looking like a sad sack street performer. I loaded another roll but the same thing happened again. Frustration was giving way to terror as I loaded up a roll of C200 — this camera’s old standby — and watched the process repeat itself for a third time. Now the winding sounded slower and more difficult for the camera. Was this the actual sound of death? A camera’s hideous death rattle? Then the camera stopped responding altogether, even with fresh batteries. It had flatlined.
After everything we’d been through together, my Nikon L35AF spent its final minutes chewing up three rolls of film like a rabid dog. And the final roll of film I’d successfully run through it were just casual walk-around-town snapshots – nothing special. To top it off, for the first three or four exposures of that final roll, I’d forgotten that the timer was on. Most of them were useless shots snapped while I was trying to figure out the camera’s problem. I felt like a total chump.
“You’re a bluebird on a telegraph line”
For a long time I had tried to envision a way to write about the Pikaichi for this site. A proper review had already been done and I had no intention of writing a lesser version of it. Still, something unique and useful escaped my imagination. Little did I think that my opportunity would arrive in the form of an obituary.
To prepare for writing this, I went through my Lightroom catalog to choose my favorite images taken with the recently-deceased. While many of the photos were familiar, many more were not. These were the photos of my daily life at the time, often of the boring, everyday sights seen on my walks to work, the neighborhood I lived in and the people in my life. I’ve never been good at this sort of personal documentation. But my best attempts were made with the Pikaichi. Here were photos of my friends on the back deck of my old apartment, a friend and I in front of Charlottenburg Palace, a portrait of my brother, a really bad self-portrait of myself while walking home from my old job, and many more.
I was flooded with emotions from events that seemed commonplace at the time but are now invaluable, viewed from various spans of time and distance. There was a photo of the window in my old bedroom. I woke up looking at that window thousands of times and probably thought it was silly to photograph it at the time. And now I’m visibly moved by an over-exposed image of a prefabricated window.
If the heart is a cup, these photos were making mine runneth over with homesickness and nostalgia. Here, I thought, is the true power of photography. It’s not the f-stops, resolving power or arguments over the proper name of medium format film. It’s the images that come out of the darkroom. And if you made me choose a camera based solely on that criteria, I’d choose the Pikaichi without a moment’s hesitation.
“Well if the wind of change comes down your way girl/You’ll make it back somehow”
Just a few hours ago I went out to take a photo of the Nikon L35AF to use for this article. I still had all the film strips it had ruined as it died, and decided they would make for a striking photo placed around their destroyer. I carried the dead camera to Stubbenkammerstraße in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, the location of a vacation apartment we had used when visiting the city that is now my home. As I gingerly laid the corpse on a satin bed of black and exposed film strips, I realized that this was really starting to feel like a funeral. I began to worry about my frame of mind, and as I snapped the photos for the article’s header image I found myself thinking of my favorite album-ending songs. This seemed more appropriate to the occasion.
While an album’s first track is an introduction, inviting the listener into the artists’ musical world, the last track is always the bittersweet farewell. “Thanks for stopping by, we hope you enjoyed the show.” Their messages and emotions are varied. It could be the regret and loss of Big Country’s “Like a Shadow”; the warm embrace of acceptance in Sujfan Stevens’ “Impossible Soul”; the hope of preservation in Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” or, to a lesser degree, the amazing schlock of Human League’s “Love is All That Matters.”
It’s this last song I’m listening to as I’m walking home. Phil Oakey’s singing never fails to make me feel better. After six minutes of Human League reminding me that (after all is said and done) love is all that matters, I’m feeling better about saying goodbye to Pikaichi.
But as I walk past a small convenience store, a flicker of reluctant hope crosses my mind. I walk past the coolers of beer, then grab and pay for a pack of AA batteries. Outside on the street, I slide them into the Nikon L35AF, close the battery door, and push the shutter button. I watch with amazement as the shutter dial moves to frame number one. And as embarrassing as this is to admit, a tear actually came out of my eye. This stupid little camera might not be dead after all.
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