Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Love Film, Love a Holga – From Hater to Lover

Mention the Holga camera to a group of photographers and you’re likely to get many different opinions. Cool. Hip. A cheap waste of time. Overpriced junk. Supporters are likely to show you their cameras, bragging about its idiosyncrasies, pointing out a pinhole light leak, or the special marking that identifies a particular camera within a stable of cameras. Detractors are likely to sneer haughtily or dismiss the camera as doofus-hipster junk. Likewise, in the squeaky clean world of digital capture there isn’t much love for the messy imperfection of the low fidelity (lo-fi) aesthetic, of which the Holga camera is the flagship. For a time, I counted myself as a detractors. I’ve since come to terms with the toy camera and lo-fi aesthetic, and now I count myself as a supporter. I love shooting with film, so I have learned to appreciate the Holga. The camera is energizing a whole new generation of film users. That means more people discovering the magic of using film, which in turn means a continued demand for film and film-related products.

I was first introduced to the idea of using toy cameras as a ‘serious’ photographic tool back in the early 80’s when a close friend of mine showed me his recently acquired Diana camera. He passionately explained the unique peculiarities and possibilities of the blue and black plastic camera. It was cool, and it seemed like fun. But then he loftily announced his intention to use it exclusively to explore the depths of photographic expression for our upcoming photography class. I had my doubts about how successful he would be. At the time, I remember being impressed that the toy camera movement was fairly well established, and by extension so was the lo-fi aesthetic. I had to admit that there was a definite appeal to the atmospheric images and to the push-back attitude that thumbed its nose at the zone system mentality that permeated our photographic education back then. However, despite being intrigued and partially aligned with what I saw, I was having none of it, for two reasons.

First, the thought of using a plastic toy camera for serious photographic study was incomprehensible. I wanted real quality gear, and I wanted it so badly that couldn’t conceive of settling for anything less than what I had. My thought process was something like “life is too short to not shoot with real glass or a real camera”. It was only onward and upward for me. Besides, one would never be taken seriously shooting with a toy camera, so why bother? However, my opinion changed significantly when my friend used the camera to take a prize in a local photography competition.

Second, the thing that bothered me the most about the Diana camera was the one quality that made it so desirable, its uniqueness. Because of the out-of-control manufacturing variables (particularly with regard to the lens), each camera that tumbled off the assembly line was unique. If you happened to get a ‘special’ one (having the right amount of lens distortion, flaring, vignetting, or light leak), you could make art. You were an instant artist. You didn’t need talent, skill, or the craft required for special processes, you just needed to know where to point your ‘special’ camera. For this reason, I considered the camera more of a gimmick. I admit that I still exhibit a lingering bit of snobbery toward all things photographically ‘gimmicky’ (I still struggle with the Lensbaby!), but back in those days, I relegated the Diana camera to the same low level of esteem as the dreaded star filters.

I admit to the error of that line of thinking. After all, it is not uncommon for photographers (including this one) to chase the quality and the unique characteristics of cameras and lenses. For example, if you’ve followed this blog at all, then you know that I’ve developed a fondness for shooting with c-mount lenses on my MFT camera. And really, is this any different than being fond of the characteristics produced by a toy camera? I don’t think so. The same goes for those ‘bokeh-chasing’ photographers, who spend thousands on a piece of glass so they can shoot it wide open and leverage the special qualities of the out-of-focus area. So yes, in the years since that first introduction, I’ve learned to open my heart to the Diana and other cameras of its ilk. I’ve long since shed those prejudices toward toy cameras, and I am no longer a hater.

Instead, I have grown to appreciate toy cameras, not so much for what they are, but for what they represent. For me, the toy camera movement, and especially the Holga camera, represents the persistence of the appeal of using film as a means of creative expression. The toy camera movement is not so much about the camera as it is about film, discovering film, shooting film, and enjoying the magic of it. Obviously, the camera makes all this possible.

Over the last decade or so, most film-camera manufacturers have succumbed to the pressure of the digital marketplace and scuttled their remaining film camera production. Sure, you can still buy a new metal and glass film camera from a very few select manufacturers, but the pickings are slim and expensive. However, the toy camera and lo-fi aesthetic remains afloat and in-production—thanks to a dedicated user base and a few dedicated outlets.

The main outlet for toy cameras,, has a full range of new cameras with wide variations in design—including special edition collector cameras. It’s easy to see that the site appeals to a younger/youthful market. The result of this marketing is that the Lomo brand has produced an exuberant and dedicated following amongst this younger group of photographers—all of whom are using film.

Indeed for some, the Holga camera was their first introduction to film, and perhaps this explains why this group seems to have a freshly different perspective with regard to film than the photographers of previous generations. The biggest step to getting people to shoot film is to actually get them to want to shoot with film. These new users, who are coming of age photographically in a world with numerous image capture options, want to shoot film, and they seem to have a far more positive outlook about film. A lot of the ‘older’ generation of photographers that I know abandoned film as soon as digital photography became ‘good enough’. Their abandonment was wholeheartedly complete and in some instances downright vengeful. One would think that film had caused them years of pain and suffering. For the newer generation of film users, film is fun, because the camera makes it fun. It’s different. It’s easy, because the camera makes it so.

As a result of all this fun, these younger photographers are discovering the creative possibilities of film, and often they are film’s most fervent adherents. For some the appeal might simply be the contrary nature of shooting film in a digital world. For others, it’s a dedication to something requiring a degree of craft, of process, of effort, or it might simply be a love affair with film itself.

Since exploring film with their Holgas, many have moved past the camera and are exploring the photographic possibilities of shooting with higher quality metal and glass equipment. I see younger photographers shooting on the street with old SLR and rangefinder cameras all the time. I also see a lot of medium format cameras as well (because of the familiarity of the format used with the Holga camera). Of course, I still see the occasional Holga, and when I do I pay my respects by thinking good thoughts.

As easy as it might be to dismiss the lo-fi plastic toy-camera movement as gimmicky hipster-chic, it’s hard to fault the success of the camera for kindling the magic of shooting film for a new generation of photographers. It might be selfishness on my part (ultimately, the more people using film the better for all film users), but it makes me happy to see that when film is presented as an option, people will choose to use it, especially if there's a camera that can make it possible.