Angel - Cairo, Egypt - '92
THE PLASTIC CAMERA
This section of Light Markings covers a little history of the plastic camera beginning with The Great Wall Plastic Factory in Kowloon in the 1950s, and describes the attributes and varieties of this great toy... and serious piece of art making equipment. The primary reason for the plastic camera to be in this book, as it really isn't an alternative process, is to make a point about the value of play in art. A good deal of this writing examines why you might want to use an inexpensive children's toy camera and how it has become an integral element of my teaching and work as an artist. Some instructions are also provided on how to modify the toy camera so that you can get the most from the experience with the minimum amount of frustration. It is also a nice medium format negative to look at, scan, and use to make little contact prints.
If you are a teacher, at any level of mentoring, or an artist in need of a wake up call as to why you decided to fall in love with photography in the first place, this is your ticket to happiness. If you are totally invested in digital, there's something for you here as well... simple modifications and custom cheap Holga lenses for your very expensive digital adult camera or iPhone.
A Little History
Once upon a time... there was a novelty manufacturer in Kowloon, Hong Kong, called The Great Wall Plastic Factory. Their contribution to the history of photography was molding several pieces of plastic into a Diana camera that made nifty looking images. The Diana, with mandatory taping of every single joint and seam, and a few other modifications, became the camera of choice for photographers seeking alternatives when making images that expressed what they saw, rather than living with the optical perfection of modern photographic equipment or as we used to refer to them, adult cameras.
For many photographers, the plastic camera represented a perfect tool with which to address that old "mirrors and windows" conflict that has been raging for the last century... the mirror where the image is an expression of the artist, and the window, where the image defined the information within the photograph and visually identified the photograph as one that was about photography.
Beginning with its development in the late fifties and early sixties, The Great Wall Plastic Factory manufactured and sold the Diana, and the Diana-F, a special designation F-model because it came with a built in flash, for about $2.25 apiece. Shutter speeds were tenaciously capricious but if you were really curious you could calibrate and test your camera's shutter and find that its speed ranged between 1/15 to 1/250 of a second, depending upon the age of the shutter spring inside. Apertures were equally unpredictable but most cameras featured apertures that fell between f4.5 to f16 ... not too bad for $2.25 camera.
Focus was another whimsical characteristic and it was essential that you knew just how out of line your camera's viewfinder was in order to capture what you wanted on film. Many plastic camera shooters carried a bag full of cameras, each with the specific camera's idiosyncrasies scratched into the body for identification. Shooting with them requires calculations akin to a sniper accounting for wind and distance. Eventually, desiring the plastic lens, but tired of the bag of cameras, I had one of my Dianas fitted with a Graflex shutter and the least scratched single element plastic lens in my bag.
In the years since The Great Wall Plastic Factory created the Diana, the plastic camera has re-emerged with nearly the same shape and parts but with a different name attached to its body. Some, like the unpredictable Diana, are considered treasures and sell for premium collector dollars on eBay. Other plastic camera types held together for a very short time and were shunned due to chronic failures or, ironically, too much perfection in the plastic lens. Among the cameras that have fit the prerequisites of the plastic toy camera are: Anny, Arrow, Arrow Flash, Asiana, Banner, Debonair, Diana, Diana Deluxe, Diana F, Dionne F2, Dories, Flocon RF, Hi-Flash, Holga, Lina, Lina S, MegoMatic, Panax, Photon 120, Raliegh, Rover, Shakey, Stellar, Sun Pet 120, TraceFlex, Tru-View, Valiant, and Windsor. Of these, the most commonly found these days is the Holga.
The Holga is occasionally too well made and predictable for me to feel emotionally connected to it. For me, in order to be considered a true and worthy toy camera, the following qualities and attributes have to be present; a mysterious shutter speed, minimal aperture control, no actual way to focus in a predictable manner, a romantic interpretation of subject and light, the potential for disaster, infinite charismatic charm, and cheap enough to unload and give away to deserving strangers if they are smitten by the toy. There is a certain Zen-like peace attached to the act of making pictures and not knowing if they will come out. Read Eugene Herigel's, Zen and the Art of Archery, 1953, for an explanation of this point. This is the book that was a wide detour on the artistic road map for the abstract expressionist painters of the late 40's and 50's and one that I still assign to beginning students if they appear too invested in making perfect photographs. What I tell them is that the hole that the arrow makes in the target has no relationship to the shape of the arrow or how long it took the archer to send the arrow into that target. Then I ask them to think about it for a few years.
Toy Camera Philosophy
Throughout the 13 years I taught at the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, and for the last 23 years at The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, I've worked tenaciously on eliminating the myth of "great equipment equals great photography." My intent has been to create an attitude in my students about image making that has, at its core, the love of craft, image, and printmaking married to the act of play; the one truly universal learning process that all living things with faces enjoy and share in common. I want to instill in my students several salient and critical truths regarding learning. These are closely tied to the beliefs about creativity that I articulated at the beginning of my career--and the beginning of this chapter.
Learning Truth #1 - You've got to love doing something before you will invest your time and resources into learning to do it well.
Learning Truth #2 - Almost everything you do really well in your life, outside of such natural gifts like breathing and digesting, you will teach yourself.
Learning Truth #3 - Play is the most effective and persuasive method to teach anyone anything. To paraphrase Aristotle, "...play and introspection are the only two human pursuits that are engaged in just for the hell of it."
With that premise in mind, at the beginning of each semester or workshop, I continue to purchase a few dozen plastic toy cameras and make a gift of them to each student. Initially, the cameras were the classic Dianas, then Banners and Dories. I would also provide a roll of black gaffer's tape to ensure a light-tight toy, although the Holga has almost eliminated this need, and a couple of rolls of 400 ASA 120 mm film per student. Ilford has a nice 3200 ASA speed film, which is terrific for the low light plastic camera experience. In the past few years the Holga has improved and now features foam pads behind the film spools preventing the dreaded fat roll and a push - pull lever to switch between regular and time exposure modes. I fear it is getting close to being too good.
I would ask my students, as I have every foundation class, to put away their sophisticated gear and their perception that good equipment could mask, and make up for, any shortcomings in technique, imagination, and creativity. I offered them the opportunity to experience, with their new "toys," several significant things that I call the Five Plastic Virtues.
The Five Plastic Virtues
Plastic Virtue #1 - The True Memory
The plastic camera is an image-making tool that records life the way it is remembered rather than the way a sophisticated and conventional lens, far more perfect than any human eye (your basic F1 experience), renders it.
Plastic Virtue #2 - The Element of Gesture
Gesture is a creative device and a key element of personal expression in all of the arts. Unfortunately, due to the technically dependent nature of the medium, photographers have traditionally been unable to indulge in this characteristic... unless something goes wrong and the artist is lucky, or has the know-how and experience to translate the accident into a creative option. Gesture is a complicated thing to locate in a photograph, and an even more difficult treasure to access in one that is made with digital tools. Photoshop filters or iPhone apps are only able to provide a simulation of gesture. In the alternative process arena, with all of its hand-applied emulsions and sensitizers, and opportunities for failure, gesture becomes part of the photographic equation.
Plastic Virtue #3 - The Contentment of Being Anonymous
The nice thing about using a "toy" to make your art is that only those with a similar experience will take you seriously. In this context you may be a little bit like Jacques-Henri Lartigue, who was able to produce images of great energy and beauty in part because he was a 9-year old child and no one felt threatened by his camera or his interest in making images with it. A beginning student can move about freely, encountering curiosity rather than suspicion... even in this odd paranoid era of red and blue politics.
In my own experience, shooting in many different cultures and countries with nothing but my trusty and indestructible Dianas, (the crème de la crème of cheap photographic equipment), I have been able to photograph in places where "real grown-up" cameras are forbidden and unwelcome. People assume that I am not quite right in the head pointing a child's toy wrapped in black duct tape, at the subject of my intentions. As an aside, the confessionals in the Vatican, where you are not allowed to photograph, make exceptional low-light changing bags for switching film or salvaging the occasional fat roll.
Plastic Virtue #4 - The Pleasure of Simplicity and Play
A plastic camera has few qualifying controls and thereby eliminates the problem of doing something wrong... a great relief to a beginner. The cameras are inexpensive and incredibly simple and generally sell for under $25.00... although I saw that the Sundance catalogue is selling them for $75.00 because they are now so chic. This particular version of the camera is accompanied by a useless roll of black tape.
There are two aperture settings, sun and sun, or cloud with lightning bolt, which doubles as a hot shoe setting. There are also four focus options: a contemporary lonely single person (you'll be shooting in this setting most of the time), a 1950s Disney-definition of the perfect nuclear family, an academic committee, and the mountain range of your choice. The camera can be dismantled, modified in an infinite number of ways, and rebuilt to allow you to achieve specific image-making goals.
Plastic Virtue #5 - Plastic Inspiration
Due to the utter simplicity of these cameras, they can be thought of as tools rather than machines, and their output as gifts rather than life and death negatives. The great thing about the play / learning duality is that almost everyone, from beginning student to experienced photographer, learns to love the process of image making while exploring the techniques that are traditional and essential to the medium. Once a student is in love with the process, much like falling for a cuisine, a culture, or another person, the student will be eager to digest the nuances and beauty of that process's language.
As for the argument that the plastic camera is a gimmick, and that it does not teach a person how to be a photographer, I ask critics to remember that photography is simply making marks with light. I would also pose this question... Where is the greater value to a young artist: learning through positive play, mistakes, and failures or learning to use technically predictable tools and assignments that may not allow for fortuitous mistakes and interesting failures? To me, the indelible benefit of process is in the play and the love of making images that are unexpected and personal. The philosophical difference... the gift of a lifetime versus the perfect technical information of the moment. Seriously, do you need a manual to teach you how to kiss someone you love?
The plastic camera is one of the best solutions to the problem of creative lethargy. The expense and replacement costs are minimal, and thus it also addresses concerns of equal quality equipment being available to all students by putting the same camera and technology in each student's hands. It also generates a willingness to play within a technology-based learning process. Virtually every level of student from grade school to graduate school begins to think of the camera as a toy to create images that express perceptions that are as diverse as the individuals who make them. Best of all, this "toy" will mold a person's affection for seeing and photography for life... rare achievements for any learning process.
The Lens Cap is a Good Frisbee... Throw It
Recycle the lens cap immediately. You are using a single element plastic lens and it doesn't need protection.
The Viewfinder & Lens Are Only Remotely Connected
The viewfinder and the lens are two separate parts that are only remotely in sync because they both point in the same direction.
Shutters Are Meant to be Taken Apart
If you want a very low-tech solution to the shutter speed issue you may opt to remove the entire shutter mechanism from the camera and use the lens cap as a shutter. Take it off the lens and you expose the film... put it back and you stop the exposure. I recommend this technique for very low light situations where you might want to illuminate your subject with multiple test "pops" from a hand-held strobe. By the way, it takes 75 pops to make a decent negative of a face in a totally dark environment. The new Holgas have a time / bulb setting lever that makes this all pretty elementary.
Tape Your Holes
To eliminate the only light leak problem that the Holga seems to offer, remove the camera back, look inside the main camera compartment and turn the camera upside down. You will see two small holes on the inside on the geometric shape lens housing that serves as a support for the viewer and hot-shoe set up. Take two small pieces of black gaffer's tape and put it over these two holes.
To keep the film from fogging on a sunny day, place a piece of black gaffer's tape over the red acetate frame counter window on the back of the camera during normal use.
To keep the camera from opening accidentally, tape up the silver sliding bar releases on the back of the camera... especially if you're using the designer strap that comes with the camera. If you are running with your camera, because, say, the Swiss Guards at the Vatican don't want you to take pictures, the bars are likely to slide upward and cause the back of your camera to fall off.
The Dreaded Fat Roll
A dreaded fat roll situation is when your plastic take up spool, also referred to as the free gift, on the right inside of your camera doesn't roll the exposed film tightly enough. This means that it is increasingly difficult for you to turn the advance winder. The new Holgas have foam pads in the camera, behind the plastic spools, to prevent this problem but I would advise carrying some tin foil with you, to wrap the film in, just in case.
If you have an older model 1982 Holga and want to avoid the fat roll problem, take the end flap from your film box and fold it over itself about 2 to 3 times (about 2 mm) and slip it under the plastic spools before closing the camera back on a new roll of film. This will create tension on the spools and should eliminate the fat roll predicament. Be sure that you put a little finger tension on the unexposed roll when advancing the first few turns into the camera, up to the first film manufacturer's text on the backing paper... this gives the film the right idea.
Avoid Low Light
To prevent thin exposures: shoot in the brightest light you can find because this camera gives traditional HP-5 or T-Max an infrared look. Avoid low light unless you have a modified shutter for long "bulb" -like exposures, are using a strobe attachment, or shooting 120 mm, 3200 ASA, film.
On that note, processing plastic camera film is a great opportunity to experience the graphic potential of "pushing" your film in development. You will likely get blown-out highlights and a lot of grain and contrast but if you're not sure that you had enough light to work with, it is more prudent to extend the development time about 15% to 20% rather than having nothing on the negative.
Finally, lighten up a little... this is a toy you're working with. If you approach the plastic camera with the proper attitude, it will reward you with all of those great feelings you had when you first decided that being a photographer was a perfect way to spend your life.
The Digital Plastic Toy Option
For all of you digitally raised image makers... if you want to experience the thrill of imperfection and gesture in your light markings, and are on your way to alternative process image making, here is how you can have it both ways. Two of the web sites that are presently offering a cheap Holga lens to fit snugly on your expensive, DSLR or iPhone camera, are www.photojojo.com and www.holgadirect.com. All you need is about $30.00 and they can fix your plastic camera lust with a cheap plastic lens that mounts directly on your camera's body. Here's how Photojojo phrases the pitch, "Since its invention in 1982, the Holga has been the king of toy cameras. If you've seen a fantastic lo-fi medium-format shot with some vignetting, lens flare, and funky light leaks, chances are good it was taken with a Holga. Now you can get the same great Holga shots with your DSLR. In fact, you can get thousands of 'em -- play around as much as you want, since you don't have to pay for that pricey medium format film or wait for it to be developed. Go nuts. You can even take Holga-style video with your DSLR. How cool is that?" "See, magic is real, and it can be yours -- all yours!!!"
A little excessive in the marketing perhaps but you get the point.