Speaking of Toys
By mike pobega   

 in the Metro

Photography and me have had an ongoing love affair since 1975 when I began working on my school newspaper in Junior High. My graphic arts teacher Mr. Hirschel put a Yashica in my hand and requested me to move throughout the halls to gather some snapshots. I hadn't taken another photograph until 1980, when I purchased my first real camera, a Canon AE1.  This was one of the more popular cameras of the day, with over five million sold.  I saved some money to purchase additional lenses and even bought a highly coveted (used) Canon FD 50mm 1.2. This setup was the basis for my learning photography, and served me well for quit a bit of time. Some years later, I was given my first Nikon, an N8008, by a friend who had damaged it twice by pulling out the film and not letting the rewind mechanism do its work.  It sat in a drawer for a while until I decided to have it repaired and give it a shot (no pun intended).  Although it came with a decent Nikon zoom lens (I still don't use zooms), I decided to sell the lens and buy a Nikkor 50mm 1.4, then a Nikkor 28mm 3.5 and lastly a Nikkor 105mm 2.5.  I liked the aperture priority function, and the Nikon has an amazing metering system which made the qualitiy of my prints noticeably better than those taken with the Canon.

Since those early days I have always strived to achieve the best quality possible.  I moved to medium format system in 1983 and just last year jumped into large format photography.  I took a working vacation to Wyoming and wanted to capture the beauty of the land in a format that I had always known to be far superior to anything I had ever shot with before.  To me, large format was the be all and end all of photography. The time it took to set up the equipment was actually beneficial, forcing me to slow down and compose the image on the glass.  After investing in a huge amount of equipment, I finally felt I was up to the challenge.  I loved every moment of my trip, seeing firsthand the natural wonders of the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, which I had previously only seen in books.

Fast forward to  late 2004.  I was finally going to embark on the trip that I had always dreamed of – a trip to Paris and London.  Amazing cities that have been photographed by some of the most renowned photographers in history: Atget, Doisneau, Brassai, and Cartier-Bresson amongst others.  In the back of my mind, I knew large format would not be a smart choice on this trip.  I knew that these were fast moving cities and setting up a tripod in the middle of the Champs Elysees would be both cumbersome and dangerous, not to mention illegal. I toyed with taking my Bronica SQA system as well but when it transpired that the airline only permitted 13lbs of carry-on luggage, I decided that too would not be an option.

Four weeks before my trip, I came across some images on the internet taken with a Holga 120. I liked the artistic “old” feel to these images.  The Holga is a simply designed plastic camera with a plastic lens.  A lens that has all the aberrations and distortions I have tried to avoid for the past 30 years. A toy camera, which strangely uses 120 film.  It utilizes only the bare necessities for photo mechanisms with minimum control, providing a cheap and accessible alternative for students and hobbyists to dip their toes into the, otherwise very expensive, world of medium format photography.  This Chinese made toy is named after the term “ho gwong” meaning very bright. Translation for you and me: Holga..

Holga 120S


Pere Lachaise Cimetiere, Paris
Within a decade this simple camera’s popularity has grown into a worldwide phenomenon with new devotees being born every year creating a virtual community of photographers, students, artists and esoterically trendy individuals who see the simplicity and the advantages/disadvantages of the Holga as a creative force.  Something to embrace and grow into and then with.  This was a crossroads for me.  I have a history of being different, of loving a challenge.  I needed my European images to be different, not the typical “tourist” photos.  I wanted to do Holgagraphy (my word, don’t look it up).

Oh did I mention this modern marvel’s price yet? Twenty bucks.  To be honest, I did get mine modified slightly.  It now shoots square images, as did the original, but somehow the new Holga’s shoot 6x4.5. 

These cameras come with a myriad of problems, most notably light leaks.  I had patched some areas within the chamber to suppress them.  The film sits loosely in the film chamber, but in my Holga there is some high tech foam to tighten the film up a bit.  I purchased my ‘modified’ Holga 120S from Holgamods.com.  My cost: $38, shipping included.  This camera went in my bag alongside my Leica M2, Nikon N8008, six lenses, 40 rolls of 35mm film, 10 rolls of 120 black and white film and other assorted necessities. 
 I shot a test roll just to get a feel for the Holga and then I was ready to take on Paris and London.  My first shots in London were from the hip and even upside down. Did this really matter? No, I soon realized that I was shooting a lot of film but that was a good thing.  The only inconvenience was changing rolls every 12 shots.  The first day out, the back came off accidentally, I corrected this easily by purchasing a roll of cello tape and running it around the body after loading, not pretty but functional.  Day two at St Paul’s Cathedral, I came across many tiny black crosses commemorating Remembrance Day in the Centre Courtyard.  I got on my knees and shot upward, I love super low angles and the Holga is a from the hip camera, so it excels.  You guess the distance, no real focus other than a graphic of 1 person, 3 people, many people or a mountain translating into three feet, six feet, nine feet and infinity respectively. There are two graphics for exposure: sunny which translates into f11 and cloudy which is f8.  There is one set shutter speed, said to be 1/100 but it can vary upwards to 1/250. 
Quai du Louvre, Paris
Knowing the sunny sixteen rule helps here.  I shot 400 asa black and white film, so either setting should be fine on a decent day.  I think the f8 setting (cloudy) gives more of the distinct Holga vignetting but I need to test that theory more

Paris is a city made of this kind of photography, a real street photography destination.  Move quickly, get the shot and move on.  I found that people did not take you too seriously with this plastic camera, and this is a good thing.  Since 9/11 everyone in NYC is paranoid (for good reason) but I felt free in Paris to explore and experiment. Everywhere you look your mind’s eye can see Holga images, the many sidewalk cafes, booths along the Seine, old cobblestone streets, pretty much anywhere you turn can make for some interesting shooting.  I did find the Metro too dark for this limited camera but maybe with 800 or better film it could be done right.  There are some other modifications that can be made to these cameras and at twenty dollars each, it is quite possible to have a few to be at the ready for any scenario.  You can add tripod sockets, larger apertures, and even a flash unit.  I have not tried color film as yet but when I do it will be negative film as the limitations of slide film could be disastrous..

Buckingham Palace, London

Remembrance Sunday, St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Looking back I find it interesting that of all my images taken on this trip, the ones I am happiest with are those which took little technical planning, and were taken with my $38 wonder.  Don’t get me wrong, my Leica and Nikon were indispensable on this trip, but I think that in this day of auto everything we tend to lose sight of what we truly want to achieve which for me is to take photographs unhampered, with as few restrictions as possible, be it equipment or aesthetics. It is my sort of getting back to basics.  I think that always exploring new avenues stimulates creativity and enables you to grow as a photographer.  To coin a phrase, “Free your Holga and your mind will follow”, or something like that, I never was any good at coining phrases.
Artist Square, Place du Tertre, Paris

Cafe, Ile St Louis, Paris


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