Wednesday 19 March 2008

The sixties' camera makes a comeback

It's cheap, plasticky, uses old-school film and takes truly terrible photos – but that's exactly why thousands of new fans love it. Simon Usborne snaps up the 1960s camera that's found a second life on the web.

The Holga is, by all accounts, a terrible camera. Shake it and it rattles as if something has broken inside. Its laughably retro design looks like the work of a child let loose with a crayon. You almost expect it to squirt water when the shutter is pressed.

The toy-like camera, which is more than twice the size of a digital compact (but less than half the weight), takes poor pictures. Often blurred and streaked with patches of red, they look like the end-of-the-reel snaps you would throw away in the days before digital. But in spite of all this, a pack of snappers – amateur and professional – are racing to get their hands on the plastic oddity (even the lens, which has been described as an "imitation of a cataract", is fashioned from plastic rather than glass).

The Holga, barely more sophisticated than a pinhole camera, takes rolls of medium-format film which, when developed, produces square pictures. It features just two aperture settings ("sunny" or "cloudy"), four focus positions from "portrait" to "landscape", and a basic flash powered by AA batteries. A spring connects a clunky lever beside the lens to the shutter, which has just one speed (one-hundredth of a second – or thereabouts).

Despite its Luddite convictions, the cult of the Holga is being propelled by technology. Holga-mania is sweeping the internet as fans use blogs and photo-sharing sites such as Flickr to extol the virtues of their deficient cameras, and to scan in and share their dodgy snaps.

Hundreds more pages are devoted to guides to "hacking" Holgas, or modifying them by taking them apart and adding bits to improve them. And hack they may, because while most of us shell out hundreds of pounds for a sleek slab of brushed aluminum and inches of expensive LCD screen, Holga converts fork out as little as £15 for a camera on auction sites such as eBay, where hundreds of Holgas are listed, or from specialist shops. At that price, a slip of the screwdriver is hardly going to be disastrous.

On the photo-sharing website Flickr, where as many as five million snaps are uploaded every day, a search for "Holga" yields more than 260,000 photos taken by users with names like "eyetwist" and "kimprobable". Most are American, but in the UK, one man can stake a claim as the Holga's chief online ambassador.

Squarefrog (real name Paul Williamson) is an IT technician at an art college in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. A keen amateur, he got his first camera, a standard digital compact, four years ago. "I was besotted with it," he says. "I took it everywhere and photographed anything that caught my eye."

Williamson, 25, soon grew tired of what he calls the "sterility" of digital. In the age of the booming digital camera industry, with its spiraling megapixel counts and camera menus that would flummox a fighter pilot, converts to the cult of Holga celebrate the camera as an antidote to high technology. "Everything seemed so pristine in my photos," Williamson says. "They were almost optically perfect."

Williamson used to spend hours on his computer, using Photoshop to age his images, making them look like the faded travel snaps you might find collecting dust in your dad's attic. He discovered websites devoted to "Lomography", or online communities of photographers espousing low-fidelity images – the name was inspired by another "toy" camera, the slightly more sophisticated Russian-made Lomo LC-A. It was here that he first clapped eyes on the Holga.

"My first pictures were disappointing," he says. "But then I learnt things like focusing distances and how important it is to get close to your subject – the Holga's wide-angle lens forces you to. We're spoilt with zoom lenses on digital cameras."

Soon, Williamson was getting better results. He was so taken with his new piece of kit that he decided to share his enthusiasm with the world through his own website, squarefrog.co.uk. Subtitled "Life Through a Plastic Lens", the site features galleries of his pictures and hints on how to make the most of the camera.

Members of Williamson's Flickr group, called Squarefrography, have one thing in common: a perverse love of the Holga's many flaws. "You really don't know what to expect when you take a picture," Williamson says.

One of the camera's worst features (or best, Holgarists would contend) is what's known in photography as vignetting, where the middle of the photo is well exposed but insufficient light reaches the edges, causing a circular darkening of the picture, especially at the corners. Most camera-makers have spent fortunes eradicating the effect, but vignetting is a big reason for the Holga's charm, allowing photographers to draw interest to the centre of their images.

Other loved flaws include an almost insuperable blur, caused by the Holga's low-quality plastic lens. The same goes for light leaks; light often seeps in through the gaps around the back cover, which is held in place by flimsy metal clips, and through the exposure number window at the back of the camera. This leaves some photographs overexposed, or scarred with a random array of pinky blotches or streaks.

Many Holga owners overcome this by taping up the gaps, or even spray painting the camera's shiny interior matt black to minimise internal reflection – a process called "flocking". Others incorporate the light leaks into their work.

The internet has given the Holga a new lease of life in recent months, but the camera is anything but new. It was designed in China in the 1960s as a mass-market "people's camera"; "Holga" is derived from the Cantonese "ho gwong", meaning "very bright". The camera used 60mm-square film, the only format widely available in China at the time it was designed. It launched a generation of Chinese amateur photographers before appearing in Hong Kong in 1982.

The Holga's antediluvian charm soon seduced many photographers in the West. It ousted the Diana, another camera produced in Hong Kong from the 1960s on, as the "toy camera" of choice for professional snappers looking for something different.

David Burnett, the award-winning American magazine journalist and co-founder of the Contact Press Images photo agency in New York, added a Holga to his arsenal of more than 50 cameras in the early 1990s. "I had a Diana before, but I had lousy luck with it," he says, "so I got a Holga and fell in love with the dreamy look it gave to photographs."

Burnett, 61, soon started taking his new toy on assignments to separate him from the pack. "You can stand next to 10 photographers taking the same picture, and know yours will be different," he says. "Hopefully better and different, but at least different." His approach reaped rewards; at the White House "Eyes of History" photography awards in 2001, Burnett's Holga snap of Al Gore on the campaign trail won top prize.

Enthusiasts are catching up. There are whole magazines dedicated to the camera. Michael Barnes, an amateur snapper in Ottawa, picked up a Holga and fell in love with the "timeless" feel of its images. "The dreamy quality of Holga photos somehow represents memories better than sharper images can," he says. Realising that he wasn't alone in developing a Holga habit, Barnes launched a magazine for enthusiasts. Light Leaks has a global readership that increased from 150 to more than 1,000 in just eight issues.

In the UK, Holgarists can pick up Light Leaks at the Photographers' Gallery bookshop in London. The shop, run by John Buckle, claims to stock the biggest range of Holgas and accessories to be found outside Asia. Sales have rocketed: "We sold more than 200 over Christmas, and often sell out before we can get more in from the factory in Hong Kong," Buckle says.

The Holga has even developed a celebrity following. Jack White, half of the American rock duo The White Stripes, was so fond of the camera that the Austria-based company Lomography, which produces hundreds of "toy" cameras a year as a licensed manufacturer, recently released a limited-edition Holga bearing White's name, in the band's signature red and white colours.

Williamson's website offers instructions on how to make the camera even more low-tech. Holga hackers can cut a square from a drink can, drill a hole in it with a sewing needle, unscrew the camera's shutter mechanism, insert the aluminum square in place of the lens, add a cable release to allow steady shooting, and voilà – you have a pinhole camera, christened, inevitably, the PinHolga.

Or how about a Holgaroid? By bolting a Polaroid back to a Holga, you can expose photos on Polaroid film for instant results. Or the Holgarama: "People are creating wide cameras, where they cut two Holgas in half and separate them, with a sealed box in between, so they can get a 12cm by 6cm panoramic photos rather than the standard 6cm by 6cm," Williamson says.

But perhaps the hack that gives the most striking results is modifying the Holga to take 35mm film by wedging a standard roll into the camera with folded cardboard and rubber bands. Because the Holga is designed to take bigger film, light hits every part of a 35mm reel. As a result, the developed image includes the film's perforated edges and numbers. "It's a really cool way to make pictures stand out," Williamson says.

Sales of digital and mobile-phone cameras show no sign of slowing, but with sites such as Squarefrog springing up all the time, it seems that the cult of Holga will only spread as more of us swap our technically superior cameras for quirky lumps of plastic that look like badly made toys.

"Until film becomes obsolete, nothing will drag me back to digital," Williamson says. "It just doesn't do it for me any more."

 

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