Holga — the name may sound intimidating, but it is the most recent fad in the photographic art world. Shaking off humble beginnings in China as a cheap alternative to more expensive cameras, the Holga has reemerged as the choice form of expression for a certain type of hipster. We can’t help but see this camera first as a fashion accessory, like a BlackBerry or an iPod, and secondarily as a tool for the creative process. But good things can come from the fashionably banal, can’t they? At least until they come up with the one step Holga™ Filter in Photoshop.
Saans Downtown, at 173 East 300 South (Broadway), has again successfully cultivated an entire exhibit and accompanying book focused on this phenomenon. This carefully hung culling of 150 images was hand-picked by two noted jurors, Holga photographers and devotees themselves.
Amanda Moore and Steph Parke weren’t put off by the over 400 entries, and must have relished the thought that they were able to select Holgists — um, Holguistas? from all over the world. Of the 400+ submissions, only 65 artists were chosen to exhibit. Besides the usual rigorous aesthetic criteria jurors must wrestle with to prove up the relative value of a work, it is evident that these two jurors had to deal with the antithesis of these official “regularities.”
What links these works is, of course, the limitations of the Holga as a photographic machine. Intrinsic to the Holga is a vast array of camera-dependent defects and quirks that would be considered obsolete in the antiseptic world of modern digital cameras. The very features considered fatal defects in a “normal” camera have become the most treasured Romantic assets of the Holga. The trademarks of the Holga — the flatness of the color space, the light leaks and the surly vignetting that strangle the image on all four sides — are totally unpredictable and somewhat disquieting. For these Holgafficionados, the Magic 8 ball that is the Holga is a positive attribute for both their process as well as the resulting 5”x5” image.
This anti-aesthetic is what bonds the Holguistas together. This band does not want perfection: they are striving to unleash creativity. They are on the hunt for some fatal encounter with chance. The pursuit of process (even random) is decidedly creative, perhaps in proportion to the unpredictability of the outcome. It’s as if these artists are tired of exactness in image and the myriad choices presented to us in this easy-serve digital world. They want flat, surreal images embodied in the nostalgic-sentimental format and pleasing softness intrinsic to the plastic lens of the Holga.
By questioning the conservative interests of “straight” or perfect aesthetics, these photographers draw attention to the importance of the anti-aesthetic. For example, in “China Retro Style Again” by Sophie Masse, the artist employs the dreamy cambering of the Holga’s vignetting to smash us into the diagonal elements of the frame. This line is implicit, yet invisible, being echoed in the brutal diagonals of the phone booths, rhymed with the street and power lines. Of course, vectors derive from an ancient understanding of composition and will forever be around. Perhaps the crucial difference in this case comes from realizing this effect without an exactly preconceived outcome.
While these charming anomalies hanker after a sort of psychic indifference, a disinterested touch of imperfection, Masse’s image paradoxically ignites a vague counterdesire through its channeled elusiveness. We want to chase the subject, nail it down more definitively. The flatness of the monochromatic fore and background, contrasted with the surreal flash-tone of sickened orange and the distorted roughness of lens, this image is a perfect example of how these happenstances may happily benefit the image as a whole.
Another way we can see the anti-aesthetic of the Holguistas working is in their subjects. Taking into account the chimerical — shall we just say perverse? — nature of the Holga and its impishly surreal and often dark qualities, we can see how images otherwise and apparently innocent may be subverted, even made unwholesome. The audience’s experience and feelings feed on what they are drawn to and also repulsed by. Viewers’ natural attraction to subject matter becomes gnarled up with the Holga’s sentimental-perverse coloring. A prime example of this is “Hands up, Stands up” by Brett Johnson.
The photographer’s choice of black and white favors the sentimental value, as does the obvious playfulness of a child as subject. Without further inspection, the viewer might comment on just the “beauty” of this image, as if it were just an early photograph of Lewis Carroll’s — the innocence of a girl frivolously playing in a field. This feeling is brought short by the darkness of vignette descending upon her from all angles, the tip of the dutch angle (ever more disturbing in the square format) and her disembodied stumps of legs cut off by not only the torso but at the knees as well. This disturbing anti-aesthetic is achieved by forcing our attention to the unpleasurable aspects of this photo, more significantly in our capacity to be drawn to these. This photo effectively convinces us of the beauty of the arcane and the unpleasurable. The execution could not have worked better with any other camera than a Holga. The dark “imperfections” of the subject matter complement the Holga’s technical “imperfections,” as they yield a perfect balance in “Hands up, Stands Up.”
Saans’ new Holga tradition alongside with Ms. Moore and Ms. Parke’s excellent selection is a showcase full of risk, unpredictability and chance. The perfect elements for an interesting exhibit AND shooting with everyone’s favorite hunk-of-plastic insta-art machine.
HOLGA Show 2008 will be exhibited at SAANS downtownthrough January 5, 2009.