This week I used my new Holga camera for the first time. The Holga and other “toy” cameras like it are making a comeback lately, probably in reaction to the limitless possibilities for manipulation and control in digital photography. For those of you who have never seen or used one, these low tech cameras have only two settings -- “sunny” and “not sunny” -- and only four fixed points of focus, ranging from a closeup of a person (3 feet away) to a mountain (infinity), that you have to estimate and select as you aim at your subject. The body is plastic, and so lightweight a mouse sneezing nearby would likely blow it apart. The seams are not airtight, watertight or light-tight, which means the film inside the camera is subject to “light leaks” that can expose the film randomly, often beautifully. Basically, you depress the lever 12 times, hand the film over to the guy at the camera store, hope and wait.
Things Are Looking Up
I am in love with this camera. Everything that is wrong with it is right for me. My digital camera is so much smarter than I am, I have owned it for months and still haven’t finished reading the instruction manual, and when I do open it, there is so much to learn about so many settings that can produce so many nuanced results, I forget everything I’ve read an hour later. And that’s before the images even get out of the camera and onto the computer for post-processing! After an extended shooting session recently, the camera beeped and turned itself off after flashing me a tiny screen full of icons and abbreviations that may as well have been in cuneiform for all I understood. I later guessed correctly that the batteries needed recharging, but I still had my suspicions that the camera had simply gotten tired of me and wanted to go home and go to sleep and so, simply shut down. Maybe one of the icons was the universal symbol for “triumph over a fool.” My greatest accomplishment with this superior being was to learn just enough to set everything on automatic and surrender control entirely. I have a camera with which I can do anything, and I have chosen to do as little as possible!
My old film camera and I have a more equal relationship. I let him figure out the shutter speed and aperture, but I insist on doing the focusing myself. He can advance and rewind his own film, but I have to first put it in place. We have developed a certain trust that if I have done my part to carefully select, compose, frame and focus a shot, he will get the rest of it right for me in the 24 or 36 precious occasions allowed to us. We have an agreement. There are no take-backs or do-overs. When we work together, we are serious and joyful and in absolute harmony. Most often I’m pleased by the results that come back from the camera shop, which look exactly like what I saw through the viewfinder and hoped to capture, and require no further online editing.
The Holga is another creature entirely. Entrusting the film into its insecure chamber, advancing it by means of a plastic lever that feels as if it could break off any second, waiting for a faint number to appear in a tiny red-tinged window and making sure it is not too far or not far enough, all of this before taking a single photograph, I feel the same ignorance and lack of control as I do with my digital camera, but in this case it isn’t a matter of one of us knowing more than the other – there is something at work greater than both of us, and we are equals in the game of chance. So, this week in the safety of the studio, I estimated distance (not a person but not a mountain), I aimed the camera, I depressed the lever, advanced the film, and handed over to the camera store what could be brilliant images, or 12 black squares, or anything in between.
Visions of Time
There are ways to make a Holga work for you, but they do not involve an instruction manual the size of the Gutenberg Bible, expensive software, or an academic degree. The effects you can get with a Holga are indeed subject to chance, like the strange electric arc of sparkling light in the image above. However good you are at calculating and correcting for certain conditions, working with a Holga is a unique blend of giving in to the randomness of the possible, while attempting to impose all of your skills and instincts in setting up a shot to give it the best shot at looking as close to what you see and want to capture as possible. Then you have faith. Then you have fun. Then you wait. Then you have even more fun.
I'm happy to report the first images my Holga and I created together look very much like what I saw and wanted to capture. I think this could be the start of a beautiful relationship! I tried one double exposure by shooting with the same frame twice before advancing the film. Oddly, when I got this film back, there was a second double exposure of two shots I distinctly recall advancing between, which you can see below. It is one of my favorite shots of the group though I feel only partly responsible for it! I like that feeling. Ah, Holga!