The French word for a camera lens is “objectif photographique,” a factoid I learned in a piece from a series of articles & books called “Object Lessons,” which, surprisingly, has yet to publish any histories of cameras. They’ve published a book on the potato, so… But maybe the story’s too big to tell too quickly; that’s probably why the article only touches on how the 50 mm lens came to be the standard for “normal” vision.
Anyway, the French word is perfect because, as the author points out, it encodes much of what we tend to think photography is for: “truth and impartiality.” But there’s an object counter-lesson in cameras like the Holga I’ve used here—a lesson in an undercurrent that emerges again & again in western thought.
When you look up the history of this little plastic wonder, you’ll notice that its mass appeal parallels that of the broader #lomography movement, which began when art students fell in love with the Soviet LOMO they’d smuggled across the Iron Curtain. The biggest difference, however, was that the Hong Kong-made Holga was target-marketed to the US after the Chinese proletariat for whom it was designed preferred 35 mm over its medium format film. It’s a fascinating story that can be told in many ways, including how that original format with its 6×6 images set the stage for this very app you’re holding in your hands, from its square shape to its perfectly imperfect filters.
I’m not using that original version; these unedited shots are from a Holga 135 I got off of eBay that I’m pretty sure was originally sold at Urban Outfitters in the mid-2000s—I remember seeing these colorful hipster bricks when they were being marketed to people my age & scoffing. Ha.
I’m not scoffing now. The hipster urge to reach for exotic tech like this speaks to a very real longing for alterity; the essence of lomography is no different from the romanticist cry against the “objective”—the true and impartial and exact; these are not the values you’re holding up when you put a Holga to your eye.
The name Holga comes from 好光, or hou gwong, meaning “very bright” in Cantonese, and I can see why—what these unedited photos I took reveal are a celebration of light, a capturing of an aura that’s more beautiful and brilliant than what I’d even seen with my naked eye. I don’t know if that’s the Holga’s doing or if the Fujicolor film takes the credit, but it’s photos like these and the way they transmute moments of insecurity & frustration that keep me excited about analog.
In the early 80s, the Holga was targeted at American photography schools, and again, I can see why—even with this later iteration, the Holga 135, what you get is a very bare-bones piece of plastic with two aperture settings (sunny or not), two shutter settings (click or hold open), and the ability to guesstimate focus based on the cutest pictograms of the approximate distance from your subject.
It’s incredibly debilitating, but it also makes photography a much more embodied experience. The eye becomes a partner with the sense of proxemics and something I’ll just call “presence”—that awareness of light and shade and their proportions.
Because one of the most interesting insights I got when reviewing my roll is that, in many ways, taking a photo is more about painting with shadow than painting with light. I had some extremely underexposed images that could have worked if I had been more aware of the “volume” of shade I was bringing into the picture—the light itself always found a way through regardless. This camera is just hungry for light.
People love the Holga because no two devices are exactly the same; the manufacturing process makes that impossible. For all of us born in the shadows of techno-modernity, there is something counter-cultural about that. Katherine Oktober Matthews puts it this way: “It’s really hard to form an emotional connection with perfection,” so “we tend to connect to flaws, reading them as personality. You bond with your camera.”
I think photographers celebrate flaws—the glitch, the happy accident—because, deep down, they know that they are being enrolled in the production of modernity, where technique trumps all; but as with everything under capitalism, imperfection is now just another aesthetic option. No, I don’t see the flaws anymore; I see bias and interpretation, a camera that refuses to be a mere window on the world—an objectif photographique. It’s not so much #nofilter as an enthusiastic yes to being colored by personality. That’s a turbulence that can be harnessed as an aesthetic but never fully tamed.
When I approached Sruthi, Rashad, and Helaina for their portraits all those many months ago, I gave them a remote control to activate my camera three times—a before, a moment of silent communication, and an after. My main motivation was to becomes more comfortable walking up to strangers, but another aspect was my deferral of that “decisive” moment—to hand over the shutter release and let them decide what’s captured. The results were beautiful.
This stems from a general discomfort I still have with re-presenting people. Christine diagnosed this the other day by saying that I seem to want to depict people the way they want to be seen, when I should really focus on how I see them myself; and that’s hard!
After seeing those strangers’ photos, someone told me that they’d be curious to see how I portray the people I know more intimately. That thought fills me with anxiety but I’ve been trying.