Sunday, 2 June 2013

Ata Ata Holga Hulu, Ham Tot Zoglo Hulu Hulu

Today we're going to have a look at the Holga, a popular novelty that I (surprisingly) haven't written at length about yet. The Holga is a rare example of pre-internet hipster culture that has survived and thrived in the internet age. In fact, with the rise of Flickr and Instagram and Tumblr and so on, it's even more prevalent than it was, although nowadays the Holga is more an idea - a look, a set of filters - than a physical imaging system. The fiddliness and expense of shooting with film puts people off.

Most of the images in this article were shot with Kodak TMAX 100, developed at home with R09. I bought my first Holga in the late 1990s, but it was a cynical decision. I couldn't afford a digital camera at the time, and it seemed a waste of money buying a 35mm film SLR, because film was on the way out. Nonetheless I needed to keep up with a trendy crowd, and the Holga was the most cost-efficient way of doing so.

It's easy to forget, but the 1990s was a poor decade for film cameras. The Spotmatics and Canonet GIII f1.7s that people generally think of when they think of film photography were long-dead. Even in the 1990s they fetched a surprisingly steep price on the used market. Instead film in the 1990s was all about APS, and disposable cameras, and compact cameras with f/5.6-11 autofocus zoom lenses, and everything was futuristic, in a way that has dated terribly. In the 1990s classic style was old hat. There were a few attempts to recapture the timeless looks of the past, but they were horribly misguided, viz the Nikon 35Ti, which had little dials on the top. My memory of photographic technique in the 1990s is that you were supposed to shoot with slide film, and bracket everything, and if you weren't shooting the same scene five times in a row you weren't a proper photographer. You were supposed to shoot test rolls to make sure that your batch of film was up to snuff. And you had to wash your film before you developed it. It was the age of the Nikon Pronea S and the Minolta 800si, non-entities then and now. Photography had a fin de siècle quality about it that permeated Generation X culture; a sense that everything had been done, that the problem had been solved, but we still weren't happy, and all that was left was decadence and trinkets. As decades go, the 1990s was totally bum slops.

You might not remember Generation X. The kids of the late 1960s and early 1970s grew up and entered the job market at a time of unemployment and recession, after having been promised the Earth. The punks said that there was no future, and gleefully awaited the end; Generation X saw an endless pointless mediocre future in which nothing ever happened. "It will not be any different, it will be exactly the same."

Not all of them died of heroin overdoses or self-inflicted shotgun wounds, but the survivors aren't doing so well. You know, if they had picked up arms and slaughtered everybody over the age of 50 - instead of just moping - they would now be the bastards in charge, but instead they're just as poor and unemployed as they were in the 1990s. You, my children, don't make the same mistake.

In a way the Holga was just another decadent trinket, but that was fine by me because I was a product of my time and loved decadent trinkets just as much as the next man. It's just that the Holga was within my price range. Generally hipsters don't like to talk about money, but it underpins everything they do, and everything they are. You can't be a hipster without having access to a lot of money. Actual poor people - of the old school - can't afford to buy the latest gadgets and fashions, and this was even more problematic in the late 1990s, because the latest gadgets were proportionally much more expensive back then. If I had bought an actual poor person's camera to the table I would have been mocked and shunned, because there was nothing ironic about cheap instant cameras, nothing cute about them.

A Holga, however, was a guaranteed entry ticket to hipsterville, and it didn't cost very much at all. In fact the camera was cheaper than the cost of buying and developing a couple of rolls of 120 film. The interesting look was a bonus.

If I had pressed the button a split-second earlier, the cyclist would have been in the frame. That moment will never come again, and I'll regret it until the day I die. God set up the shot for me, and I blew it.

And it does have an interesting look, although it's a bit of a one-trick pony. It would be easy to dismiss the Holga as a faddish pile of cynical crap if it wasn't for that fact that it pushes the right buttons. I'm reminded of the famous Japanese drawing of a woman being ravished by an octopus. It's so wrong, on so many levels, and yet the fisherman's wife doesn't seem to mind. Of course, she's not real; the only real person getting a sexual kick out of that scene was the man drawing it, who was a man. But the point still stands. It would still stand. If I could remember what it was. Sometimes beautiful flowers grow from infertile earth. Cherish the flower.

Nonetheless a trawl through some Flickr groups reveals slag heaps of monotonous, near-identical Holga images produced by people all around the world. Taken in short bursts they're fascinating, but eventually the effect becomes tiring. The look was a cliché even in the 1990s. The June 1996 issue of Popular Photography mentions it in disparaging terms, and it's interesting to see that the practice of illustrating a camera review with just four really crappy photographs is not a new development:

It seems that rubber bands were fashionable in America. I have always used masking tape. No doubt in Japan they tie their Holgas up with string, like something from the world of Nobuyoshi Araki (or perhaps they use octopuses, I just don't know). Oh why does everything have to degenerate into tentacle porn? It's the chilliness that puts me off, really. I've never thought of octopuses as being particularly smelly creatures, but they're cold to the touch and that's a passion killer.

Popular Photography's writer ignores the Holga look entirely, and assumes that people were drawn to the camera purely because of its worth as an artefact, fancy that. The other popular criticism levelled at the Holga is that it was overpriced for what you got. In the 1990s there were scads of used Kodak Brownies and Agfa box cameras available for even less than a Holga, but in my experience the look isn't comparable. Genuine vintage cameras are, if anything, too good, with fewer light leaks, sharper lenses, and flatter film than a Holga. Indeed I was a bit disappointed by my Agfa Synchro Box for this very reason.

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, when people think about the look of vintage photographs they're really thinking about the look of prints, faded and torn by time. The thing that makes vintage photographs vintage isn't the photography, it's time. Time and distance. Our vision of the past is filtered though a distorted lens. The Holga is a kind of photographic time machine, it produces negatives that look like ancient prints.

The early history of the Holga is sketchy. Searching through Google Books, the earliest picture I could find of one is from an advert in the March 1990 edition of American Photo:
From an advert for the Maine Photographic Resource, American Photo, March 1990

It's not the first appearance of a Holga, though - a flash-equipped model is listed in an advert for New York's Cambridge Camera Exchange in the February 1989 Popular Photography. For $39.95, which seems high.

I fucking love The Simpsons.

Who made the original Holga? Wikipedia cites a source that identifies a "T M Lee" and dates the original design to 1981, but this sounds like bullshit. The rest of the internet simply repeats these two facts like a big electronic parrot. And yet after Googling for a while it seems that Wikipedia is broadly correct. "T M Lee" is actually Lee Ting-mo, who designed the Holga for Universal Electronics Industries of Kowloon, Hong Kong. The Chinese market for cheap medium format toy cameras had been displaced by posher 35mm models but luckily for Universal Electronics Industries the Holga became a favourite of artsy photographers in Europe and America. The company's bacon was saved by plastic.

Who runs Britain? Hint: it's not you.

Plastic bacon. UEI now shifts 200,000 Holgas a year, which isn't bad at all. Is the Holga you can buy on eBay an official Holga, or a clone? Mine doesn't have any manufactuer's marks, either on the camera or anywhere on the packaging, so for all I know Mr Lee is totally penniless and bitter, and curses the morning.

I have owned two Holgas. My first was a 120S, which I bought in 2000-ish. It had a single shutter speed, a switchable aperture, and a hot shoe. It came with a plastic mask that slotted into the body that masked the frame to 645 (vertical), but in those days it was almost de rigueur to remove the mask and shoot without it. With the mask in place the images had sharply-defined edges and were cropped to the lens' sweet spot - which almost defeated the point - whereas with the mask out the edges were fuzzy and undefined and blurry and messy:

The mask also helped to keep the film flat. There were several popular modifications at the time, and a couple of them have been officially folded into the Holga's design. Thus my modern Holga has a tripod thread, a choice of 1/100th or bulb exposure and a 6x6 mask, which helps to block out light leaks and keeps the film flat whilst retaining the square format. I generally shoot with the mask in place. Scanning software generally works best if it can see the edge of the frame.

One other thing. My first Holga came in a generic blue cardboard box, whereas new Holgas have hipster graphics on the packaging. Which feels wrong, in a way; part of the Holga's appeal comes from the sense that we are subverting something unselfconsciously pure, whereas the hipster packaging gives the game away. Does that make sense? It's like finding out that your favourite singer didn't learn to sing by serenading doves in a misty field, she instead went to stage school.

As you can see, it focuses, although the depth of field at f/13 is such that it's very basic. Despite being made of plastic the lens is surprisingly sharp in the middle. It becomes blurry towards the edges, and this - combined with the vignetting, the chaotic lens flare, the creased film, random streaks of light etc - is what gives the Holga its charm. In the right hands the central sharpness and strong vignetting are powerful compositional tools, naturally drawing the eye to the middle of the frame. Some Holgas have a glass lens, although this seems to be of no real benefit. The optical viewfinder is designed for the 645 mask, and if you use the 6x6 mask - everybody does - the coverage is very conservative.

There's a line of flags opposite the Houses of Parliament. Each one represents part of the British Empire. The flags are supposed to be impressive, but you look closer and see that Tristan da Cunha has a flag to itself. No offence to the people of Tristan da Cunha, but a whole flag?

My first Holga had a broken aperture mechanism. The switch moved a little arm into place behind the lens; the arm was supposed to have a little aperture, but the factory hadn't installed it. For years this was the way Holgas were made. Modern Holgas now include an aperture, which means that there is (at last!) a way of controlling exposure beyond using different film speeds. The lens is f/8, permanently masked off to f/13, with the aperture arm stopping it down further to about f/20.

In practice this still doesn't give you much control, and ultimately I just don't bother with a lightmeter. Print film has a lot of latitude. All of the London shots in this article were taken with 100-speed film on a mostly overcast day, and they were underexposed a little bit, but Photoshop can work wonders. 400-speed colour film is more than sufficient for the daytime outdoors; if you're indoors, give up. The Holga has a flash hotshoe, but the narrow aperture will defy auto-thyristor flash units, and it seems wrong somehow to calculate flash exposure with a Holga. As if you were taking it too seriously. The lens has a focal length of 60mm, which is roughly 28mm-ish in 35mm terms, slightly narrower.

The camera is cheap, but it uses film, which can be problematic. By the late 1990s medium format film had become firmly established as the professional's film of choice, and I remember that development was not straightforward. The typical local camera shop had to post it off to their central laboratory. The alternative was to use a professional lab - Joe's Basement in my case - but that was expensive, and a lot of them were very snobbish about taking film from ordinary people off the street. They are mostly gone now (including sadly Joe's Basement, who weren't snobbish at all). Posting stuff off was tricky because there was a dearth of good postal photo developers in the UK at the time. Fortunately the field has expanded; out of habit I use Peak Imaging but there are others that I would be happy to advertise (hint). The imperfect quality of Holga images is appealing if you plan to develop the film yourself, because there's no pressure to get things right.

In Holga-land there is no right. Everything is wrong. And it feels good.