Canon AE-1: the gear that changed my (photographic) life, again and again


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The Canon AE-1 (Program) is by far the camera that has had the most impact on my life. Not that there’s anything particularly extraordinary about this classic film SLR, aside from its affordability, availability and reliability – ok, I guess that makes it a little special.

Over the years it’s a camera that I’ve come back to again and again as a means to hit reset, and recontextualize my love for photography.

I first picked mine up along with a “nifty fifty” for $200 at the end of my second year of high school (May, 2004). I’d been an avid

shooter for about four or five years prior, but hadn’t owned a fully-manual camera (coincidentally the AE-1 Program is one of the first mass-market SLRs with auto controls).

The September (2003) prior I’d launched a monthly zine with some of my friends, packed to the brim with skateboarding and rock & roll photographs, along with silly articles and band/artist interviews (creatively named, Dan’s Zine). I was the chief photographer/editor and took my role quite seriously (for a teenager, at least). We printed them on the B&W Xerox machines at my father’s office and distributed the copies by hand in school and at a local deli.

Skateboarding was my earliest photographic obsession. I shot this in 2004 for a cover of Dan’s Zine, a monthly publication I published with some friends. Will Best, Taildrop.

What started out as mostly a joke blossomed into a full-blown amateur journalistic/photographic obsession. By the time May rolled around, we were printing at least 50+ copies an issue (eventually closer to 150+). With the school year coming to a close I was eager to learn more about photography. Up until that point I’d only really paid attention to composition, but suddenly the idea of exposure control and handling my own film seemed like a brave and exciting new world.

The idea of exposure control and handling my own film seemed like a brave and exciting new world

So I enrolled in a summer darkroom photography course at the local community college. And much to my excitement, a fully-manual camera was at the top of the list for course materials.

That summer accelerated my love for photography at lighting speed. I quickly became a creature of the darkroom, monitoring it on the weekends for modest pay and volunteering to assist other students. I spent hours, often alone, making prints or hanging out by the drying racks reading stacks of old photo magazines from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

A selection of “Dan’s Zine” master copies from our 36-issue run.

I also fell in love with my Canon AE-1 that summer; I’d spend the next two years of high school bringing it with me everywhere I went including many solo train trips to Hoboken, New Jersey, where I’d shoot street photography along the waterfront. I also used it to shoot the next 28 issues of Dan’s Zine, which came to a close with issue #36 as I prepared to head off to college (summer, 2006).

I’d acquired a shiny new D300 and all things film photography became an afterthought. My AE-1 would remain untouched for many years to come

I’d spend the next four years studying photojournalism and immersing myself in digital photography and its workflow – first as a photographer for our daily student newspaper, The Daily Targum and later in a variety of editor positions including photo editor. It was there I first handled a DSLR and became hooked on digital.

By my second year in college I’d acquired a shiny new D300 and all things film photography became an afterthought. My AE-1 would remain untouched for many years to come.

I picked back up my AE-1 after a 5 year break to document my transition from college to young adulthood while living in New York City. From a personal project titled Analog 3086.

But then when I needed it most, it reemerged: I was a year out of college and working as an assistant magazine editor, commuting daily from New Jersey to midtown Manhattan. At the time, my life revolved around all things photographic, though I had almost no time on-the-job for actual photography. It was around this point I began to feel a creative emptiness bubble inside me along with all sorts of existential dread.

You can’t force creative passion, so instead reconnect with what made you fall in love with photography in the first place

Perhaps it was the realization that my best years were seemingly behind me (haha) and I’d be spending the next 40-something years working; or perhaps it was a lack of personal creative stimulation. But I needed help, and so I turned to a trusted colleague who advised me that “You can’t force creative passion, so instead reconnect with what made you fall in love with photography in the first place.”

And so I brushed off my dusty AE-1 and start shooting film again, with no real objective other than to try and spark passion. And boy did it.

For me, film is a more intimate medium to work with than digital. From a personal project titled Analog 3086.

I’d spent the next couple years working on personal project, part self-documentation, part observation, called “Analog 3086.” The sole purpose of the project was to foster a stronger relationship between myself and photography.

At the time, I considered most of the images nothing more than snapshots. But as I’ve gotten older and wiser, I now see them as historical records – vivid depictions of a young man finding his way through early adolescence. These are images that otherwise would never had existed, had I not turned back to film.

The rekindling of love for my AE-1 sparked a deep and nerdy interest in film cameras as a whole

That rekindling of love for my AE-1 not only reignited my creativity and passion for photography, it also sparked a deep and nerdy interest in film cameras as a whole. I’d soon begin to buy and sell them with regularity and still do. Years later, my collection would swell to numbers I care not admit.

But even as heavy-hitters like the Leica M6 joined my collection, I’d still find myself picking up the AE-1 in moments where I simply wanted to enjoy photography, without the noise (people see a Leica in the wild and want to talk your ear off). And for many years it remained my go-to photographic decompressor.

Another “Dan’s Zine“-era shot from around 2005. John Mullen, noseblunt slide.

These days, I still use my AE-1 from time to time for sentimental reasons, but it’s largely been retired (replaced by a Nikon FM2). Fortunately, the lessons it’s taught have been well-learned, and I don’t just mean exposure values. It’s taught me how to slow down and reconnect with my childhood photographic curiosity, the one that sent me careening down my present career path some 17 years ago.

It’s taught me how to slow down and reconnect with my childhood photographic curiosity

Ultimately, we all have a story about what got us here, to the point of being photo/camera-obsessed. And mine’s no more or less special than anyone else’s, just as my AE-1 is no more or less special than the 254 currently for sale on Ebay. But you know what is special? The fact that most of us never got into photography because of the gear, we got into because of a feeling: a feeling of joy, curiosity and satisfaction that comes from the first few times you hear that shutter “click”.

It’s a wondrous feeling and one well-worth reconnecting with.

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