A candy-colored Holga 120 CFN started it all for me.
Just a few weeks ago, the film photography world was rattled by the news of the Holga camera’s passing. According to the announcement of US distributor Freestyle Photographic, the Holga factory has ceased operations and production for the cameras and its accessories. As the iconic camera has been instrumental in teaching photography and encouraging creativity, many were naturally saddened that it ended up — in the words of Freestyle Photographic President and COO Gerald Karmele — “yet another casualty of the digital age.”
For film photographers, the Holga is a camera that needs no introduction. It was one of the tools you encountered and wanted to experiment with in your early days of shooting film. From its humble beginnings in 1981 as Hong Kong’s inexpensive, mass-market answer to the photographic needs of working class Chinese, the Holga went on to obtain cult status for the very reasons it was sold for cheap: crude plastic build, light leaks, lack of precision controls, and surreal, low quality photographs. It was one of the front liners for the toy camera movement which has eventually evolved into the counterculture set alongside the more complex and high-tech photography of today.
My multi-colored Holga 120 CFN was the first to teach me one of the harshest lessons in film photography: if it’s a poor shot, it’s a poor shot. If it’s poorly exposed or badly composed, nothing can save it (not even as a poor excuse for “art”). Another was to never underestimate the capability of any camera to make eye-catching photographs, even if it’s called a toy. And last, never undervalue what experimentation and happy accidents can do to your photos.
Some, like me, must have found themselves getting reacquainted with film photography after seeing the vibrant and often otherworldly images that simple cameras like the Holga were able to make. The rest, it seems, have found their way to trying out the real thing for the first time after either 1) seeing some square film photos floating around sites like Tumblr and Flickr; 2) stumbling upon the lomography subculture, which was a big part of the film photography resurgence; or 3) being introduced to the dreamy effects rendered by apps like Instagram. Yes, the Holga was actually one of the cameras that sparked the trend for square format photos bathed in nostalgic hues and quirky saturation.
New Zealand-based John Bozinov, one of the brilliant photographers we featured in our Motion Issue, also started shooting film with a Holga. “The first film camera I shot with was a medium format Holga, so my love for analog photography grew from my relationship with 120 films,” he said. “The limitation of only having 12 frames on a roll was so vastly different to my experience with digital photography that it completely changed the way I shoot and the experience of taking pictures.”
For my co-editor Adrian Norbert Cuper, the Holga journey has just fairly started — just last year when he borrowed a Holga 120 CFN from a friend to bring along for a trip to Greece. “It’s funny how the old school-looking camera makes people open for conversation and posing,” he said about the experience. “They treat it more like something fun, not being spied like when photographers with DSLRs walk around and shoot evidently too much. The results made me want to have my own Holga and obviously, I bought my own!”
What made — and continues to make — the Holga a camera worth shooting with? I think John summed it up nicely here:
“The Holga’s beauty is its simplicity. With effectively no control over aperture or shutter speed, the Holga forces me to completely forget about my camera and focus on the subject in front of me. Of course, there have been times where it has frustrated me to exhaustion but I’ve also found a lot of joy in coming to understand how its plastic lens can show me things in a new light.”
While I use more advanced cameras frequently at present, I still share the same sentiment as John when he said, “In the modern era of the endless stream of digital photography, I think there are still a lot of lessons that toy cameras can teach us about the fundamentals of photography.” Many wasted rolls and several years on, the Holga still slaps me with the lessons I previously mentioned whenever I get too complacent.
Likewise, I agreed with Adrian when he told me, “I think that the Holga effect will be always remembered and copied even after the closure of manufacturing it.” Also, there will always be people like me, him, and most likely you, dear reader, who will always have this sense of pride in being able to shoot and get great photos with the real deal.
So, if you still have your Holga and, like me, you haven’t shot lately with it, why don’t you keep its lo-fi spirit alive. Treasure it, honor it, and by all means, keep shooting with it. It doesn’t have to be — or stay — dead.