Whether a camera neophyte or a serious photojournalist, plastic cameras can put the joy back in shooting a picture.
Toying with the traditional standards of what a camera is, a Holga is a lightweight, cheap, relatively light-tight box that uses film and a plastic lens. It has no visible light meter, removable glass lenses or manual aperture or shutter speed adjustment capabilities. But in the right hands, it can capture photos that rival those taken with expensive, state-of-the-art equipment.
This revolution in seeing things, without being concerned with a product's technological extras, is what professional photographer Michelle Bates wants to share with the world with her new book Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity.
"A Holga is an antidote to the tyranny of technology," said Bates from her studio in Seattle. "The look is completely different than digital."
She stressed that a traditional photograph taken straight-on is not really how humans see. "It's artificial. The Holga's vignetting represents the fading in our peripheral vision better than a rectangular image that is sharp all the way to its straight edges."
As her book explains, plastic cameras "allow the step up to medium-format photography, and its larger negatives, with a minimum of investment or worry."
In conducting her research for the book, Bates discovered that professionals with every camera at their disposal still choose plastic cameras for particular shots. Recently, she spotted a photo in Newsweek magazine taken in Iraq by a prominent photojournalist with a Holga. "It doesn't say taken with a Holga, but it's just the photo the photographer wanted to make," said Bates.
Speaking so affectionately about the cute $25 cameras (that's including the lens) is not new for Bates. She's been in love with the model since she was encouraged to pick one up at the Maine Photographic Workshop in the summer of 1991. Holgas are used as a teaching tool at the workshop.
"It was introduced as a possibility. We were told to simply 'go and shoot'," said Bates. Able to ignore the usual pesky checklist of aperture and shutter speeds was freeing for the novice. She could focus on composing her picture.
The class was a turning point in her life. She abandoned her career in the biotech industry, moved to Seattle and became a photographer. Besides supporting herself with the Holga work that appeared in the Seattle Weekly and other publications, she was soon exhibiting at a number of shows and was published internationally in magazines. Out in the field, Bates found a Holga could help make people comfortable. "It's a great conversation piece. People can get intimidated by [standard] cameras. It [the Holga] breaks down barriers."
Bates also has another business taking public relations photos for performers to help pay the bills. Some of these photos of circus acts and performance artists are Holga, but most aren't. Like every other subject matter, for Bates it's about showing restraint and finding the best medium to showcase the subject.
"It's a choice of the best tool," she said. "What image maker will match up to make a good image?"
Bates' selection process for the book was competitive and demonstrates guidelines that should be used to make all quality plastic camera pictures. She paid close attention to an artist's body of work and cohesiveness with the Holga format as well as its quality.
"You need to take an image you want to make, not the photo the camera wants to make. The submissions couldn't scream 'toy camera'," she said.