I first met the surfin’ cowboy firefighter at The Inertia House on the North Shore during the 2015 Pipe Masters. I was invited to accompany and photograph a ragtag group from Malibu who wanted to be there for the big show. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to get the hell out of West Hollywood and enjoy some aloha spirit.
The competition was on hold that day so I went to the house to link up with friends. I’d been on a party-heavy diet in California so I was stoked on the chance to get a full night’s sleep, avoid drinking, and surf as much as possible. Sure enough, as soon as I walked into the house, The Dude offers me a beer. I took one look at him and knew I couldn’t say no (in my head I told myself I would not have more than two beers). He was wearing a large black cowboy hat, a Rolling Stones t-shirt, and jorts…well, maybe he wasn’t wearing jorts, but he may as well have been.
The dude was just larger than life. He reminded me of a young, buff Paul Newman, and I instantly felt a connection (not to be confused with “erection”). His name was Michael Caputo, aka Big Mike, aka Aloha Big Mike, aka The Fuckin’ Dude. We started chatting and quickly vibed on photography, particularly film photography. He asked me if I had ever used a Nikonos.
“A niko-what?” I replied.
I felt kind of foolish not knowing what this manly man was talking about. I then felt slightly more foolish when I heard it was a 35mm camera built into waterproof housing…like, how fucking awesome is that? My ears perked up and I listened as he told me all about The Nikonos Project.
The Nikonos Project, as it turns out, is a simple camera loan project. Thanks to Brandon Jennings, the guy who runs it all, the project has become very popular, with a waitlist of people from around the world who want to shoot, connect, and share their photos.
After my chat with Mike, I decided to get one of my own. Finding one online is relatively easy, whether it works or not is another question. Of the five models—I, II, III, IV, V—some, like the II & III, are more reliable than others (namely the IV). Even if you get a working one, it’s not the easiest system to figure out right away. Factor in the waterproof housing and you can imagine that loading and unloading a Nikonos is a bit more complex than a standard 35mm.
I bought a IV from a guy in East LA and although it looked brand new with a pelican case and a slew of attachments, it didn’t work. I took it to the repair department at Samy’s Camera and was it would likely cost $150 to fix and “it would probably be cheaper to just buy another one.” They were right in that I only paid $100 to begin with.
I didn’t want to give up so easily, so I texted Mike and told him my story. He explained that the IVs were known to be tricky and that my best bet would be to hit up Brandon. After a few weeks and a bit of phone tag, Brandon and I met up in Laguna where he took one look at it and said, “Oh yeah, no problem. I can fix this in 15 minutes.”
And that’s one of the amazing things about this project. Instead of saying the camera was worthless and suggesting I find a new one, Brandon fixed it. For free. We have developed such a tendency to scrap things the second they are broken, we forget that things used to be built to last and were worthy of being repaired if they malfunctioned.
I feel sort of ashamed to admit this but, in the two years I’ve had my Nikonos, I’ve only shot two rolls with it. I usually have it with me in my surf bag but if the waves are good I readily ignore the camera and wax up my board. But in those two years, I have happily followed the project on Instagram and always love seeing the variety of shots people submit. It’s always such a different perspective of surfing from the status quo high-tech photographers and high-performance surfers. You see images the average surfer can more readily relate to because let’s face it, most of us don’t get to surf perfect Cloudbreak. We do, however, get to paddle out and be in the water watching all sorts of magic take place around us. To me, that’s what the Nikonos project is: a visual collection of the magic that we experience in our lives.
These images were taken using my (not so trusty) Nikonos IV with Kodak Gold 400. I had surfed myself for over an hour and then the sets became a bit too inconsistent to deal with Santa Cruz’s 50-degree water so I ran back to the car, dropped off my board and picked up my camera in hopes of capturing a bit of that magic to share with others.