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Somewhere in China is a factory that turns out one of the most laughably awful excuses for a camera I've ever seen. In fact, to call this thing a camera at all is to exaggerate. Replica of a camera might be better. Parody of a camera better still.

This thing is a molded plastic box with a fixed shutter (well actually a coiled spring attached to a piece of metal that blinks), a lens (sort of) and a hole to sight through. That's it. No prism, no auto-focus, no motor drive. No glass, actually. The lens is plastic.

The Holga camera is the current incarnation of a line of cheap toys that began years ago with a similarly made camera called the Diana. It costs about $15 and though it looks like a cheap 35mm camera, it takes medium-format (120mm) film.

What is amazing about this camera is that it takes pictures at all. What is even more amazing is that, given the right conditions, it can produce pictures that are simply wonderful.

A few years ago, Tom Kochel, a commercial and fine-art shooter, displayed at one of Washington's finest photography galleries a set of prints he had made on his old Diana camera. It was not an April Fool's gag, either. Kochel's work, at the Jones Troyer Fitzpatrick Gallery, was gorgeous. And just recently, Craig Sterling, a fine-art photographer whose black-and-white prints go for big bucks, had me over to take a look at his most recent work, made not with the Hasselblad he usually totes, but with the Holga he carried around during his honeymoon in Italy. More gorgeous work.

These photographers approached the Diana/Holga from different perspectives. Kochel, whose work usually includes annual report and similar photography, was looking for a camera that was the antithesis of the medium- and large-format gear (and accompanying elaborate lighting setups) that he used in the studio and on location. As he put it, "I was solving technical problems all the time and getting away from `taking pictures.' "

Sterling, whose landscapes and cityscapes call to mind the work of Ansel Adams and Brett Weston, wanted to see what would happen if he did not, for once, produce a negative that was tack sharp from edge to edge. He consciously sought to make a creative tool out of the Holga's abysmally poor optics. Of the numerous images he produced in Italy, his photograph of the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome perhaps best illustrates what a lousy camera in talented hands can do. The massive and much photographed triumphal arch looms in Sterling's picture in a somber panorama, the edges of the print going to a feathery blur, only the center remaining in focus. Obviously, using a Holga or a Diana sometimes takes more than skill. It takes patience and luck. Patience because the camera is anything but light tight. In fact, the first thing any Holga veteran will tell you is to load your camera in darkness then tape it shut with black tape, the better to seal up the light leaks.

Incidentally, what few technical specs there are these: a fixed shutter speed of (about) 1/100th of a second and a fixed aperture of f/5.6 (sort of). Both Sterling and Kochel used Tri-X, a good workhorse film with plenty of latitude.

The bottom line for both these photographers was that when you use a camera with such limitations, all that really matters is your eye and your brain. This is the camera to use with abandon, allowing serendipity and impulse to hold sway.

                                                                             -=Frank Van Riper=-

Reprinted with permission of
The Des Moines Register 1993
Frank Van Riper is a columnist for the
Washington Post