The Holga Aesthetic


This essay is waaaaaaaaay overdue, but I finally have a bit of time and inspiration to write it. So, here it is….

My last essay, “The Misused Camera,” ended by suggesting that the aesthetic I’ve been developing with misused cameras and messed-up lenses might be marketed as “Large Format Holga” but that I’ve been resisting that designation. Why resist it, you might ask. After all, an appreciation of the look Holga cameras produce would seem to follow naturally from what I’m producing with my misused cameras. True enough, and I generally do like Holga snapshots (that’s what they are 99.99% of the time — true snaps shot from the hip, so to speak). What I resist is the marketing — particularly the mass marketing — aspect of the Holga (and “Lomography”) boom. This resistance is not per se a stance of artistic purity versus commodified selling-out. Rather, it stems more from two other idiosyncrasies of mine: 1) an awareness of the long historical view in which “the Holga aesthetic” resides; and 2) a respect for the deliberation needed for large format photography. Calling my misused camera work “Large Format Holga” might gain it recognition, but would hollow out history and cheapen the large format discipline. But perhaps for some future imagined exhibition, like assimilation by the Borg, resistance is futile. Until then, let me explain my resistance.

First, I’m assuming that if you’re reading this essay you already know what is implied by “Holga aesthetic.” Maybe I shouldn’t assume that. In brief, the Holga is a cheap Chinese medium format camera first manufactured for the mainland Chinese market in 1981. It hit the Hong Kong market the following year. At the time, black-and-white 120 film was readily available in China and the Holga was intended to be an affordable and simple-to-use snapshot camera for the Chinese working-class masses. It’s made of plastic and has a simple meniscus fixed-focus 60mm lens and single shutter speed (about 1/100) and aperture settings advertised as f/11 (“sunny”) and f/8 (“cloudy”), but these specs are questionable. Which is part of the point and appeal — the Holga is incredibly imprecise and its lens and body introduce vignetting, light leaks, and optical aberrations. Soon after the Holga’s Chinese debut, the market for medium format in China imploded with the rise in popularity of 35mm and so the Hong Kong manufacturer of Holgas sought an overseas market to salvage its investment. The ploy worked, as some prominent “artistic” photographers abroad liked the Holga’s lo-fi look and shot “serious” photos with it. And won prizes. Perhaps one of the most well-known prize-winning photos is this one of Al Gore’s presidential campaign by David Burnett (who also popularized the use of a Speed Graphic mounted with a 7-inch Aero-Ektar, the same set-up I use a lot for my bokehed botanicals). Burnett’s fabulous shot is a good example of the bw Holga look, but lacks the chromatic aberrations that the Holga’s uncorrected meniscus introduces. For that, you need to peruse these masterful examples that my brilliant and beautiful wife has done. Because color fidelity is usually off in Holga shots anyway, they also become good candidates for cross processing for stuff like this (cross processing or xpro entails developing C-41 film in E-6 slide chemicals or developing E-6 slide film in C-41 chemicals, which is more likely nowadays because of the paucity of E-6 processing). All right, you should have a good sense of the Holga’s lo-fi aesthetic. Now for a little historical context….

If you’ve read my previous essays you will have gleaned by now that the techno-artistic history of much of photography from its early 19th-century inception has revolved around issue of “straight” versus “pictorial” image-making, although the terminology for this distinction has varied over time and context. In short, Pictorialists were associated with “artistic” photography and used various means to achieve what in their historical contexts constituted artistic images. Manual manipulations of negatives or prints in the development process (because that assured an artist’s manual touch over “mechanical” image-making) and soft- or off-focus were two primary means, both of which the advocates of straight photography associated with a misguided modeling after the aesthetic standards for 19th-century painting. In other words, Pictorialists were accused of a retrograde dependance on the aesthetics of an older medium rather than embracing the progressive vision of the new photographic medium as its own entity with its own aesthetic. I re-mention this historical backdrop here because it’s where a genealogy of the Holga aesthetic must begin. The “Holga look,” in other words, has been around as long as the first surviving photographic exposure by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 — just take a look at his View from the Window at Le Gras. Much of the early history of photography was, in a sense, all about overcoming the “Holga look” produced by uncorrected lenses (= optical aberrations) and slow films (= blurred portraits).  Technological progress in lens design and manufacture and in the development of faster emulsions worked to slowly de-Holgafy images, making them sharper, clearer, more detailed, and free of optical aberrations. (The daguerreotype is somewhat of an exception here, but the direct positive process behind it led to a dead end — too difficult, dangerous, and expensive to work with although it produces amazingly sharp and detailed images. Daguerre‘s first attempts, however, look very Holgaesque).

The debate between Pictorialists and Straight Shooters continued into the 20th century (see f(ascism)/64 and The Misused Camera), but by the late 20th century the terms and contexts of the debate shifted, leading to the conditions of possibility for the Holga boom. Pictorialist types continued to exist well into the modern age of super-corrected and optically precise lenses and fast films and, ultimately digital mega-pixels. Some, ironically, grew out of Photoshop, software that allows for easy “darkroom” manipulations of digitized images à la the early Pictorialists — adding textures, multiple layers, painting colors, etc. Photoshop encouraged not only the tweaking to “perfection” of straight photographic images through sharpening of focus and through tonal and chromatic adjustments, but also encouraged artistic manipulations that could radically alter the straight image. From an economics point of view, Adobe was smart to play both sides of the photographic divide. Other artistic photographers grew out of a reaction to the perceived creative dead end that the increasingly technically perfected image implied, carrying into the present day the Pictorialists’ original complaint and position — if the technology can produce and reproduce an image at the push of a button by any hand then where is the artist’s hand? In this essentially elitist view of art, any art in photography was narrowed to spotting the shot and timing the button-push well, especially in the case of cameras that increasingly took over control of shutter speeds and aperture settings and, in the case of digicams, on-the-fly changes of film speeds with electronically simulated iso settings. Of course, there are still considerations of lighting and framing, but the ability to truly point-and-shoot while on auto-pilot can tend to diminish one’s concentrated concern for lighting and framing. In the face of the nearly-predictable results from better camera technology and more automated features, early artistic adopters of Holgas embraced the serendipity of unpredictable lo-fi tech in the name of artistry. Some produced intriguing artistic images with Holgas; others produced the crappy photos that Holgas were known for, but even then the context of the crappy photo might turn it into wall-hangable prize-winning art. As the digicam revolution kicked into full gear and reached the masses at affordable prices, the Holga developed the additional benefit of the retro-exclusivity of analog film, which is terribly ironic given the original intention of the Holga becoming the camera of the Chinese masses. Credit savvy marketers with having pitched this hook to nostalgic baby boomers and wannabe hipsters to warrant some truly outrageous prices for newly manufactured, intentionally flawed plastic cameras, with new models (with new flaws?) coming out on a seemingly yearly basis. It’s this consciousness of the manufactured crappiness now with the new Holgas et al that works against, I would argue, the very serendipity of the unintentionally crappy original Holgas that caught on from the 1990s as a minor movement in photographic art and ultimately led to a recognizable aesthetic — so recognizable that there are, again ironically, multiple digital apps on iPhones and Androids to simulate it with predictable regularity.

The interesting thing here is how and why technically crappy photos have become artistically appreciated, at least by enough people to sustain a commercially successful spread of gear, exhibitions, and of Holgas and their spinoffs, all of which are now marketed under the trademark of “Lomography” inspired by that other lo-fi crappy camera, the Russian Lomo LC-A, which was “discovered” and first promoted outside Russia from 1991 by Austrian Lomographische AG. That’s a topic for a longer essay, but suffice it to note that before the widespread high-gloss marketing hype that we see today surrounding Holgas, Lomos, and their brethren toy cameras, there was an artistic grassroots movement first generated by a bunch of Austrian artists in the 1990s who were responding to the then-current social and economic conditions of art. In short, Lomographers argued that (high) art is usually expensive to produce and requires institutional connections, patrons, and typically has to follow rigid rules and standards to access those supports. Just prior to its first Lomography exhibit in Vienna in November 1992, the newly organized Lomography Society published its Lomography Manifesto in Wiener Zeitung. That original manifesto has been adapted into the current “Ten Golden Rules of Lomography,” which boil down to rule-less serendipity 24/7. Shoot (film) anytime, anywhere, anything, without thought or concern for what it might look like once developed. It’s a liberating and democratizing artistic philosophy, as it was intended to be, and is therefore appealing to many. In theory I support it; in practice I’m not so sure because I see it as ironically (there seems to be a lot of irony in this history of the Holga aesthetic) leading to some of the problems I have with digital photography, namely the encouragement of thoughtless fast shooting that is truly thoughtless and crappy, where no amount of justification on the grounds of serendipitous artistry can keep it from being just plain crappy.

But, what’s crappy and uncrappy is ultimately pretty subjective, so it’s hard for me to generalize resistance towards the Holga aesthetic on aesthetic grounds (plus, as I said, I usually like it). Rather, I think my resistance towards it as a dogmatic practice is that it can create a dogmatic habit for such crappiness that is hard to get over. More specifically — and this is where my idiosyncrasy #2 kicks in — I think there is something to be said for a (dogmatic) disciplined slowness, in photography and in many other activities. I’ll leave what that might be for my next essay, “Slow-fi Photography”. . . .



One Response to The Holga Aesthetic

  1. Thanks for this really great essay.

    I shot almost exclusively with several Holgas for a number of years. I found the low tech plastic camera intriguing and freeing. I had one in particular that had a shutter spring that would slightly double expose one corner of the image. It created some very interesting effects. As the camera aged, that effect went away.

    I found each of my 6 Holgas (I bought them when they were $20), had different personalities, and I shot them in different ways, with different films. It got to a point where I was so familiar with the camera and the film I was shooting (mostly Tri-X 320), that didn’t even need a light meter. I would keep a loaded, taped up camera knocking around in the bottom of my bag all the time and grab shots whenever they presented themselves.

    Here’s an album of my Holga work on Flickr:

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