Photography Exhibit Opening at Host Gallery on March 12, 2010 – London
by Allison Ouvry
Villagers in Kpean monitor oil fires caused by a leak at a Shell wellhead. Ed Kashi ©2006
On an unseasonably cold Friday night in east London, a crowd of photographers, journalists and activists gathered at Host Gallery in London for the opening of photographer Ed Kashi’s photo exhibition, Curse of the Black Gold. It features images taken in the Niger Delta since the discovery and extraction of oil in the region began five decades ago. Amidst the cold gloom of London, Kashi’s images burned with the fire of oil flares, with the desire of displaced families and with the brutality of a military seeking to protect the government against its own people. » Read more «
Digital may have conquered mainstream photography, but the low-tech Chinese Holga rules the underground. A toy film camera that retails for $28 in the U.S. and sports a cheap plastic lens, the Holga is the darling of creative photographers worldwide.
First envisioned as an affordable camera for the Chinese masses in the early 1980’s, the Holga morphed into a successful export that reached sales of well over 1 million worldwide by 2007. Part of its attraction lies in its simplicity and retro cool look. Solid black, lacking in accoutrements, the Holga looks and performs like a budget camera from the mid-twentieth century.
Shooting with a Holga is a bit like driving a vintage car, without the associated costs. If your Holga breaks, you can easily buy a new one. If your Holga is stolen, the greatest loss will be any film inside.
Moreover, using the Holga is a delight. The plastic lens produces soft, dreamy images that melt into vignettes at the borders. The ability to take multiple exposures on one frame allows for unusual creativity. And the camera’s medium format film yields square negatives more than three times the size of 35mm.
Since the Holga lacks an adjustable aperture or shutter speed, you either have to work in bright sunlight or bring along a tripod. Yet these limitations compel photographers to think carefully about composition and light.
The Holga’s favoring of sunny conditions makes sense given its name. “Holga” is a westernized pronunciation of the Cantonese “Ho Gwong,”meaning “very bright.”
It was no coincidence that Holga production began in 1982, four years into Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Possessing a camera might have landed one in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, but once China had joined the global economy, it was time to start manufacturing consumer goods in earnest.
The inventor of the Holga, T.M. Lee, designed it for 120mm film because that was the most widely available format in China at the time. When 35mm film hit the Chinese market, giving Chinese consumers up to 36 pictures per roll instead of 12, the Holga’s popularity plunged.
According to Holga expert and professional photographer Michelle Bates, the camera was reinvented as an export to the United States in the mid-1980s, when it served as a cheap educational tool for students at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport.
In 2005, the Holga Manufacturing Company of China announced LA-based Freestyle Photo as its exclusive distributor in the United States. While Freestyle offers Holgas in a number of colors, the three main models are the 120N (basic) FN (with flash) and CFN (with color flash).
Despite being marketed as an affordable camera for working class Chinese during China’s nascent economic reform, the Holga has become a tool for fine art in the West. Ironically, all Holgas today are produced for export—mainly to North America, Western Europe and South America. To get one in China, you have to order it from a foreign distributor like Freestyle.
Lo-tech obstacles = beauty
The Holga’s limitations reflect its virtues. Light leaks resulting from questionable engineering cause the camera’s signature black-cornered images. And because light seeps into the camera body in different places, the shape and size of the vignettes are never the same. This kind of unpredictability is what makes the Holga so enjoyable.
Late in the afternoon on a clear day, the sun bathes Midtown Manhattan’s stone skyscrapers in a lemon hue. Through the Holga’s eye, the lemon glows golden on vivid transparency film. A royal blue sky stretches to the four corners of the image, where black streaks trail off. The shadows are void of detail. The picture feels like a dream fading as you wake.
Melanie Flood, a freelance photographer in New York City, likes the Holga for the naturally surreal images it can produce.
“The Holga is an inspirational tool in a way, because people make abstractions now in Photoshop,” she says. “It can produce a lot of these results on its own.”
Keith Samnath, a 25-year veteran of the photo industry, knows the Holga’s idiosyncrasies well. Now a co-owner of The Color House lab in Manhattan’s Soho, Keith has developed hundreds of rolls of Holga film.
“A lot of young people buy it to experiment with because it only costs 25 bucks and they can really get creative with it,” he says.
Ben Denne, Publisher of Focal Press, a media technology publisher in the U.K., sees the Holga as a way for enthusiasts of film photography to distinguish themselves in a digital era.
He says that while digital has enjoyed great success in recent years, it has spawned a certain overreliance on technology among some photographers.
“The fundamentals of cameras haven’t changed,” he says. “The Holga’s a great tool for teaching photography precisely because it leaves little room for error.”
Legions of Devotees
The easiest place to buy a Holga is online—from Freestyle Photographic, Amazon, eBay, or Lomography.com. All of these sellers also offer accessories to enhance the Holga’s effects, such as color filters.
If you want to adjust your Holga’s aperture function, you can send your camera to the folks at U.S.-based Holgamods.com, who will alter it to your specifications. The site, developed by Holga fan Randy Smith, is dedicated to modifying Holgas for optimal performance.
But one of the most detailed Holga sites belongs to Ms. Bates, who has been using the camera since 1991. The portfolios on Ms. Bates’ Web site feature stark black-and-white depictions of nature, both in the wilderness and as “urban oases” in large cities. Ms. Bates, the author of the book Plastic Cameras, Toying With Creativity, also teaches regular how-to workshops on toy cameras.
She believes the Holga has certain traits beyond its primitive technology and dreamy images that make it appealing.
“You can remove the back of a Holga and see how it works, which makes it more accessible than say, a digital SLR which is dependent on internal computer chips,” she says.
Bates enjoys framing her black-and-white compositions with vignettes, which allows a vivid contrast to emerge between the black borders and her white and gray-toned subjects. In the future, Ms. Bates hopes to teach Holga workshops in China.
Matthew Fulco is a 2nd year graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, specializing in International Media and Communications. Prior to this, he spent 3 years in Taipei working as a marketing communications analyst for a high-tech firm and studying Mandarin Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. His passion for analog photography’s virtues inspired this article for JANERA.com.