Plastic Fantastic: RIP Holga (1981-2015)

I don’t know when I first heard of a Holga, but I have a feeling it was probably ten years ago when I was doing a darkroom course in Toronto, although I didn’t buy one until a year or two later, when I was living in France. I used Michelle Bates’ Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity as my Holga guide, following much of her advice on how to set up the camera (to which I still heartily agree with). I remember loading the camera for the first time and taking some interesting photographs around Place Stanislas in Nancy, but I’ll never know what those photos looked like as the clips slipped out of their “lock” position and the entire back of the camera fell off, exposing all the film to the bright sun overhead. I quickly gathered up all the evidence of my poor planning (forgetting to tape up the clips is something you only do once) and over time began exploring what the camera could achieve. Although I’ve had some hits and misses along the way, there was something liberating about shooting with such a simple camera. Other than the faulty clips (and depending on the camera, the flash hotshoe), the entire camera is made of plastic, which is either really limiting, or really liberating. It really is a one camera, one lens system, and the other limitations (shutter speed, aperture – see below) really force you to either let go of all the details that get in the way, or to work with what you’ve got (often easier said than done).

 

A lot of websites and reviews (and really grumpy photographers, aka RGPs) will either wax lyrically or cynically about the Holga flaws, which include (but are not limited to):

  • a simple plastic* lens, around 60mm** focal length 
  • soft focus/lens aberrations/flare
  • one shutter speed, probably around 1/100th of a second (and of course, bulb)
  • one effective*** aperture
  • light leaks
  • vingetting 
  • the limited, off-centre viewfinder (at only 70%, you have to get closer than you think to get your framing right)

*there are simple glass versions as well, that have “G” in the name (Holga 120GN)

**the HolgaPan (and wide pinhole) provide up to 180 degrees of view

***in older Holgas (pre-2009?) there really was only one aperture (f/13) as the switch did nothing to change the size of the hole, newer models had this fixed, providing approximately f/13 and f/20 apertures

 

The RGPs often grumbled about what a crap camera the Holga was and that it was the camera of choice of hipsters who were trying to create “art” with all the light leaks, double exposures, weird film colours (either due to chromatic aberration of the lens or the use of expired film stock), and more. I’m not saying that there aren’t (or haven’t been) photographers out there who are doing just that (in fact, I’ve done all of those things at one point or another), but there are a lot of photographers who are using a Holga for so much more than that. Yes, there is softness and blurriness in the lens, but it is usually quite sharp in the centre. What I really like in the Holga is the vingetting and the edge blur – each camera produces these effects differently, yet it is such a distinctive look that it’s usually quite obvious that the camera used was a Holga. While apps like Instagram and Hipstimatic have been highly influenced by the Holga (and other toy camera) aesthetic, nothing beats the original.

 

Over the years I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from photographers who have used a Holga. The list below is but a small sample of some of the great work put out there by these artists:

 

Michelle Bates (an early influence, a lot of my early Holga shots were of quirky subjects, like hers)

Susan Bowen (I especially like her Holgaramas)

David Burnett

Perry Dilbeck

Jennifer Henricksen (aka HolgaJen)

Michael Kenna (although he does not shoot primarily with a Holga, he does use one on occasion and produces great prints from it)

Erin McGuire

Victor Milin (I’m a real fan of his work from Venice and New York)

Ted Orland

Pauline St Denis

Jennifer Shaw

Skip Smith

 

 

Even though the Holga is a very simple camera to use, its not always easy to make even simple photographs with it. Photographers tend to like to be in control of everything – from the moment they choose a film and a camera to shoot it in, to the final print. The Holga presents a challenge though, in that it forces the photographer to work within its limitations, that is, no real focus, one film speed, and in all likelihood just one aperture. Admittedly, for me, I can’t always shoot with it because I know there won’t be enough light, or I don’t have a tripod, or something goes wrong inside the camera that I can’t fix until I get home (this is often a film issue). That said, when I am in the Holga “zone” I tend to shoot photos that I am most happy with. There is something about the soft lens that takes the viewer that extra step away from reality and provides an alternative way of looking at things.

 

Although the Holga was far from being used/loved by many, its discontinuance was something of a shock for those of us who did shoot with it. With multiple variations of it on the market, including a recent digital offering, there didn’t seem to be any reason to think it might not be with us for another 30-odd years. The sudden announcement that it was finished, that the factory was shut down and all tooling and moulds destroyed, was a bit flabbergasting. It just didn’t seem possible. That said, over a million of these cameras were produced, so I’m sure there will be plenty around for many years to come. Photographers are, after all, still shooting with cameras that can be decades old. If polaroid lovers can find ways to bring back films through the Impossible Project and New55 Project, and cameras through places like MiNT, then perhaps we will see the rise of a new Holga now that 3D printing makes it possible.

 

Until then, I think I have more than enough Holgas to keep me going for some time: Holga N (x4), Holga FN, Holga WPC, Holga S, Holgamod , Holga GN…

…and some of their cousins: Diana (original), Fujipet, multiple pinhole cameras

 

RIP Holga. You were not my gateway drug into medium format, but you did show me that it was okay to let go of my photographic preconceptions and to embrace the fuzziness from within.

 

If you want to change your photographs, you need to change cameras. Changing cameras means that your photographs will change. A really good camera has something I suppose you might describe as its own distinctive aura.

— Nobuyoshi Araki

 

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