My Life in Cameras no.17

17. HOLGA

The Holga was created in 1981 by a Mr.T.M.Lee as a cheap family camera for the Chinese market, a sort of modern Box Brownie. It wasn’t exactly a “toy” camera as it’s sometimes labelled now. When 35mm caught on there and the market dried up, it started to catch on among experimental users in the West. Like its soulmate the Diana, it is now a phenomenon with competitions, flickr groups and elaborate new models aggressively marketed by its current owner Lomo.

The Holga is a hardy camera but it has its handicaps: a slightly soft focus lens which doesn’t quite cover the 6×6 negative causing dark corners or vignetting. It leaks light sometimes and the back constantly falls off. It has the bare minimum of adjustments, two apertures and one shutter speed, which means that if your subject is outside of 1/100 of a second at f8 or f11 you’ll be in trouble. It does focus, but only using symbols. Wikipedia calls this a “low fidelity aesthetic.”

Part of the secret is the 60mm focal length lens, a moderate wide-angle which particularly suits the architectural subjects I shoot. The camera changes from square format to 6×4.5 rectangular format with the insertion of the plastic plate, but this loses the vignetting which is part of the camera’s inherent look.

I bought my Holga at the International Centre of Photography in New York and took photographs of skyscrapers, see the first image below. These were shown in an exhibition called Vertigo, with Greg Wayn in 2004. This led to a much larger Holga project called The Modern Idea, about modernist architecture around the world  (other images below). You can see Vertigo and The Modern Idea on my website Modernismus.

When photographing in New York, an African man came up to me and asked what camera I was using. “It’s called a Holga.” “Why, that is that name of my sister!”

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Greg Neville, Flatiron Building, New York, 2003

Greg Neville, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, 2010

Greg Neville, Seagram Building New York, 2009

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