In 1987, Ronald Reagan was president, Mathias Rust landed his light aircraft in Red Square, and the stock market crashed on October 19, dropping 22% in a single day. Fox also made its primetime debut, the Simpsons aired for the first time, and "Robocop," "Dirty Dancing," and "Good Morning Vietnam" were all released. But what happened in the photographic world?
Perhaps the single biggest seismic shift in the camera market took place in 1987 with the announcement of Canon's EOS (Electro-Optical System), crucially unleashing the EF lens mount, which removed all mechanical linkages, introducing significant improvements to autofocus. It additionally incorporated the largest throat diameter of any SLR of the time, which enabled Canon to produce the fastest SLR lens in the shape of the EF 50mm f/1.0! However, the EF mount broke compatibility with the previous FD mount, requiring users to use mount converters or upgrade their lenses.
It was a bold move and one of the biggest gambles in recent camera history. Nikon was number one with pros at the time; however, Canon smelled an opportunity with the shift to autofocus, which enabled them to stay at the bleeding edge of camera design. The EF lens mount (and EOS cameras) was that gamble, and it paid off. Camera sales had started to rapidly increase in the late 1970s, and Canon rode that wave to become the biggest camera manufacturer on the planet.
So what was the first EOS camera to roll off the production line? The rather uninspiring EOS 650, which arrived with the BASIS sensor for accurate and fast AF using a new range of EF lenses. It was uninspiring in the sense that it was a top-end enthusiast camera but offered AF performance and usability significantly ahead of anything else at the time. The 650 wouldn't win pros over, but its successors would. It was also purportedly used to take the first photo that was uploaded to the worldwide web.
Nikon — in contrast — released the One-Touch, Fun-Touch, and Tele-Touch Deluxe cameras, which perhaps goes to show how important compact cameras were becoming to manufacturers at the time. The only camera of note was the F-401, which was a harbinger of things to come. Canon had released its first full AF model in 1985 (T80) but was about to go EOS. Nikon's first foray into full AF was in 1986 with the F-501; the F-401 was important because it provided entry-level AF, TTL flash, and introduced the now commonplace thumb wheel for setting the aperture. AF on the F-mount worked using a motor in the camera to operate an interconnecting screwdriver that controlled the focus ring. Canon put the motor directly in the lens. Nikon's solution was evolutionary, whereas Canon's was revolutionary. The future belonged to the Canon.
Minolta had had a barnstorming year in 1985 with the release of the 7000AF, the first in-body autofocus SLR. While they had a quiet 1987, their collaboration with Leica led to the release of the R5, which was a Minolta XD-7 incorporating significant Leica modifications in the form of metering, mirror box, and body. For the first time, Leica introduced TTL flash exposure to one of their cameras.
While Minolta and Canon were riding the wave of autofocus, the same couldn't be said of Olympus. Their masterpiece of design and highly regarded system — the OM — was now getting a little long in the tooth, and their response to the Minolta 7000AF was the OM-707, which used a disappointingly poor AF system that was subsequently dropped. The OM system never recovered and never received AF. In 1987, they released the OM-4Ti, an evolution of the OM series; the system was finally discontinued in 2002. Pentax was last to the AF party and rapidly backpedaled in order to retrofit an AF system to its cameras. This led to the 1987 release of the SFX, their first full in-body AF camera, and also the first that incorporated auto flash. It was marginally better than Olympus' variant, but well behind the market leaders.
Perhaps the most interesting response to the SLR autofocus wars of the 1980s was from Fuji. All of the brands had a 35 mm SLR range, and it was at this point that Fuji decided to abandon it — it's never produced one since. The only cameras they made in 1987 were compacts that would have sold in large quantities. This, of course, hides what was to be the seismic camera release of 1988 — the DS-1P, which is considered to be the first fully digital camera, saving its images from a 2/3" CCD to a memory card. And at about $40,000 in today's money, it was a top-drawer product.
As the news headlines at the beginning show, there were plenty of global events to keep press photographers busy. For a long and lingering look through 1987, take a peek at The Atlantic's retrospective for the US, while paimages provide a well-rounded view of the UK.
On the awards front, "Immersions (Piss Christ)" by Andres Serrano — nominated by Time as one of the 100 most iconic photos of all time — made its first appearance. A striking photo in and of itself, it won some limited critical acclaim; however, the clue is in the title. Serrano photographed a crucifix in a glass of his urine and claims that he didn't mean to offend anyone. It created much more controversy when it was later exhibited in 1989, and Serrano received a fair amount of hate mail as a result. However, its legacy is more profound — the image was condemned as indecent and (in part) led to the standards law that required federally funded arts agencies to consider decency in their award criteria. And whilst this might seem to fly in the face of free speech, the Supreme Court begged to differ.
World Press Photo of the Year went to Alon Reininger for his long-term study of the AIDS epidemic and specifically his photograph of Ken Meeks, a director at the Gay Men's Health Crisis. The eyes are piercing, soul-searching, staring out from a virus-wracked, emaciated, body. The wheelchair speaks to his frailty, the lesions on his arms unsettling. Perhaps darker, for me, is the other person sitting and reading on the couch. The image is one of sadness, of waiting for the end. Meeks would die several days later from the disease. It is a reminder of a key and tragic news story that ran throughout the 1980s.
Finally, National Geographic selected an image of Dr. Zbigniew Religa as their picture of the year. Taken by James Stansfield, it shows Religa sat exhausted — his assistant asleep on the floor — next to his patient Tadeusz Zitkevits after having completed Poland's first successful heart transplant. It's an image transfused with meaning: the subject is singular, being cocooned within an operating theater. It is also unorderly, with tubes, cables, and blood littering the scene. Tiredness infuses everything, from the assistant, to Religa, to the patient. Yet, it speaks of success, of life, of new beginnings. New life for Zitkevits, new opportunities for medicine, and a new future for Poland.
If there is one word that describes 1987, then it is this: opportunities.