We had already seen the Fantastic Plastic exhibit at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery shortly after it had opened. But someone had just published an article on Listening to the Artist so my wife Jill and I were anxious to follow the suggestion in the article and attend the artist talks for the exhibit on November 3.
Plastic, in camera talk, often means Holga or Diana. These ridiculously cheap, ridiculously constructed cameras have a ridiculously tenuous appeal to some highly professional and technical photographers. Why in the world should this be? Well, plastic also means pliable and even unpredictable. Call it a breath of fresh air. In a world where $3,000 full-frame digital camera bodies and heavy 300 mm lenses are pains in the wallet and the shoulder, there is something about a $35 camera that uses a film format invented in 1901 for the Kodak Brownie that is at once really, really retro and really, really post‑modern.
Those molded plastic lenses and those pieces in the camera body that barely fit together result in the allure of the Holga and its brethren. Say hello to blur – sometimes a lot of blur. Learn to love vignetting at the edges of the frame. And if you are really lucky and have the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) Holga, your photographs will have light streaks from one end to the other. All those together make the wonderful, adorable, and sought-after quirky Holga image.
These cameras also are often termed toy cameras. I beg to differ. In the hands of the artists in the Fantastic Plastic show, the results are hardly toy-like. Holgas are genuine sources of creativity for those who are sufficiently skilled to avoid, or to exploit, their unusual characteristics. Give one of the cameras, patched and taped so that it does not have light leaks, to an accomplished artist and it is simply an extension of their usual artistry. The plastic camera is just another tool in their toolkit to present their vision – albeit a tool that produces softer-than-usual images with those characteristic vignetted borders.
© 2003 Christian Bradley West
One Holga-is-not-a-toy artist is Christian Bradley West. He often works with a classic Mamiya 645 medium format camera that uses the same film as his Holga, but is more sophisticated by a light year or so. Yet in Christian’s hands the Holga gives images that have the same strong visual impact as his other work. Fairy tales abound with what you find during a walk in the dark woods. Finding a deer, seemingly asleep but not breathing, Christian plucked a nearby tiger lily and silently placed it on the deer as a memorial to a magnificent creature whose life had departed. The Holga captured the moment in a loving way we can all feel.
At Chilmark 4
© 2009 Corrine Adams
Corrine Adams, too, uses her Holga not as an occasional fling with a toy but as a partner in search for discovery. Corrine, a co-founder of Atlanta Celebrates Photography, was deep in Appalachia with her hammer Thursday night on a construction project for a family that needed some help. Therefore she was not available to talk the group in the gallery. Yet she shared with me later what her relationship with the Holga really is. Corinne says that, “…the Holga is a more intuitive approach to photography – less thinking, more feeling.” She follows her intuition knowing that, as she says, it will lead to something magical. “It is definitely a slowed-down way of photographing…I like the forced delay, the look and feel of the film, the contact sheet.” Corrine frequently scans her negatives and further processes them with software. “It’s a nice partnership. Old and new, Intuitive and analytical – working together toward some hoped-for positive end.”
Gare du Nord
© 2008 Sandy Hooper
Now the Holga is a plastic camera in more ways than one. You can dig into it and make modifications that change the shape of the negative, to make double exposures, or to create two side-by-side images that overlap on their edges. Sandy Hooper is one who had the good fortune of using the Holga in France in the overlapping image mode. (Although she whispers that this was not intentional but was one of these happy accidents that photographers love to experience.) Her images from that time are twins joined hip to hip. The one of the Gare du Nord in Paris here is a good example. Sandy's co-joined images, taken one after another, were not necessarily intended to show similar design elements but they often do. Note the arching roof in the far distance on one half and another arching roof just a few steps away in the other. And her “Piano Fingers” image takes this happy accident occurrence to the extreme. Find it yourself on the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery website linked in the first paragraph, double-click on it, and see what I mean.
© 2010 Mary Anne Mitchell
If Sandy Hooper’s images are happy accidents, some of Mary Anne Mitchell’s are happy catastrophes. Those in the Fantastic Plastic show the quirky (love that term) side of the Holga. And of those, the Kodak Moment shown here is over the top. An amateur photographer would have thrown it away. A true artist would proudly show it in a gallery. Of the five artists that spoke Thursday evening, Mary Anne was the only one who had a Show-And-Tell. Out of her green grocery bag she brought her Holga, her underwater camera, and her juice box. Her juice box? For that friend of yours who has been flashing that Leica M9, the perfect holiday gift can be found here.
Dorothy O'Connor's work, seen in the exhibit website, is a great example of using a Holga double exposure to excellent effect. Many of us know her wedding dress portraits and her trees but her Holga work creatively combines them. Now we know what to do with all those magnolia leaves that litter the yard, or those left-over Easter eggs, or that pesky moss that is growing in the wet shady spots in the back yard.
What good is owning a gallery if you can’t grab the floor now and then. Jennifer Schwartz took the opportunity to share with us that she, also, is a newly-minted Holga fan. The camera is a way for her to slow down and capture images more intuitively without the imperative of getting everything exactly right to the nearest 1/3 of an f-stop. Jennifer, a self-confessed control freak (she said it, I didn’t), finds the Holga to be a welcome step back from her usual way of working. Call it therapy if you will. Forest McMullin, another artist in the exhibit, expressed an almost identical sentiment. The Holga is a way to break out of the control mentality. Step back and let intuition take over.
© 2010 Jennifer Schwartz
Jennifer relates her own experiences with the Holga in her blog. In summary, “The moral is that fantastic images can be created with a plastic camera. Just not by me.” Some might debate this last statement of hers. After most of the crowd dispersed, Jennifer shyly brought out some of her Holga pieces for a few of us to see. Thank you, Jennifer, for agreeing to share them with Random Radiance. We anticipate seeing more.
So, when you tire of 21 megapixel images taken at ISO 3200 and processed to death in the digital darkroom, take a walk on the wild side and try a Holga. It just might be good therapy - after, that is, those first ten rolls of film and those six-packs of gaffers tape.
All images are published with the explicit permission of the artist.
Text other than direct quotations copyright 2010 by Richard Ediger.
Text other than direct quotations copyright 2010 by Richard Ediger.