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It shoots roll film and it's blurry, but the Holga's catching on


The Holga is a plastic toy camera. Its flaws are its merits: despite its light leaks and plastic lens, the camera takes great, though technically flawed, pictures. (Christopher Twarowski/CNS)

coco taxis.jpg

This picture, showing "coco taxis," shows the Holga's signature vignetting, where the corners of the picture blur and fade to black. (Courtesy of Eric Brown)


The Holga is a plastic camera that's appreciated by photo amateurs and pros alike for its special aesthetic. This picture was taken with a Holga, the vignetting--the corners blurring into black--is characteristic of the camera. This picture was taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and shows the remains of a statue of a lion that was looted by art thieves. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)


This vacation snapshot, taken with a Holga, has light leaks across the top of the picture. The flaw is characteristic of the Holga, a cheap, plastic camera that nevertheless has an aesthetic to its pictures that is appreciated both by amateur and pro photographers. The picture shows palm trees in Santa Monica, Calif. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)


The Holga is a plastic toy camera. Its flaws are its merits: despite its light leaks and plastic lens, the camera takes great, though technically flawed pictures. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)

Its flaws are its merits. For lovers of the Holga, an all-plastic, no-frills camera, its unpredictable pictures are what makes it special.

"It has that wonderful contradiction: professional film and a toy camera," said Millie Falcaro, a photographer in New York. She's been using the Holga and other primitive cameras for years in her artwork.

Don't be fooled by the looks of a Holga. It does take pictures. And calling it a toy camera doesn't mean it's for children, although these plastic boxes look as if they might squirt water as soon as take a photograph.

The draw of the Holga, besides a price tag of $20, is the retro, dreamy quality of the photographs, which are as far removed from digital pictures as you can get.

The Holga and other toy cameras take big square pictures with colors that resemble intensely flavored candy. The prints have streaks and imperfections running across them because of the camera's light leaks and the four corners of the picture blur into black.

This intense vignetting, as the effect is known, is the hallmark of the Holga.

At a time when the world of photography is undergoing a sometimes painful conversion to digital images, Holga enthusiasts are raising their fists in defiance and sticking with film.

Toy camera lovers celebrate the cameras for producing what digital photos can only imitate: real, unpredictable flaws that make every image unique.

The aesthetics of the pictures have made art students and photographers appreciate toy cameras for years, but in the last year there have been signs that the number of Holga users is growing.

"We definitely see a trend happening," said Patrick DelliBovi of Freestyle, the national distributor of Holgas. There has been a sales increase of 5 to 10 percent each year for the last five years, and as many as 60,000 Holgas are now sold each year.

"It's bucking everything that everyone's saying [about digital taking over],” he said. The main customers are schools, college bookstores and photo stores.

Don't expect to see the Holga at large retailers, though. "As far as Kmart, no. I don't think it'd ever be there," DelliBovi said.

The Holga was originally intended to be a camera for the masses. First produced in Hong Kong in 1982, the camera uses large, paper-backed 120 film.

At the time, that was the dominant film format in China, the Holga's intended market, said Michelle Bates, a Holga photographer in Seattle and the author of the recent book, "Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity."

The Holga factory in Dongguan, China, hasn't messed with the camera's winning formula since it was first created. Its name supposedly comes from the Cantonese words "ho gwong," meaning "very bright."

"It looks old and dreamy and different," said Eric Brown, a Holga photographer and graphic designer in New York.

"The goal is not to represent, but to distort," said Falcaro, looking at a blue print of a leafless tree with a liquid clarity to it that makes the picture look as if it had been taken in her dreams.

In 2001, a Holga picture won the White House News Photographers Association's award for best "Campaign 2000" picture, with a striking black and white shot of Al Gore speaking outside at a rally.

The photo’s vignetting made the image instantly recognizable as a Holga--the blurred corners and warped image draw the viewer's attention toward the center, where the politician looks small and intense against the dark clouds gathering overhead.

Even though the pictures are stunning, the camera itself is what hooks a new user first. Because of its simple design and low cost, many a Holga has met with modification.

Owners drill holes in the camera, tape up old ones, wiggle the single spring that controls the shutter and fiddle with the winding mechanism for advancing the film.

"If you try messing with your Leica, that's a $1,000 mistake," Brown said. If you screw up with a Holga, though, oh well, better get a new one, he said.

Brown has six Holgas, and because they're cheap, each one has been modified differently. A Polaroid camera with a Holga lens becomes a Polga or a Holgaroid. A pinhole-camera version becomes a Pinholga.

To truly break down barriers, there are modifiers out there who fit a digital back onto a plastic Holga lens. No word on what that crossbreed will be called.

Holga enthusiasts, though, are not simply Luddites trying to ignore the inevitable death of film. The increasing popularity of toy cameras doesn't have to be a backlash against digital images, said Robert Blake, chair of the general studies department of the International Center for Photography in New York.

"I think it's more based on the outcome than the instrument," he said, adding that it's the resulting pictures rather than the funky camera that draw users.

Photographers don't have to choose between film and digital, Blake said. Rather, the Holga can be one of many cameras and aesthetics a photographer works with.

For some students of photography, a new kind of film can be a revelation that opens up new possibilities. Many toy camera users feel that the little plastic box frees their creativity like no other camera.

Stepping away from standard and automated photography for the first time, many are surprised at the low level of technology you need to take a picture. "Light," said Falcaro, "that's the only thing you really need."