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Panorama Pix, Sure – But With a Holga?

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Rules, someone said in a land long ago and far away, are made to be broken.

To a certain type of folk – bank robbers or car thieves, perhaps – this philosophy merely validates their behavior.

But to an artist any set of rules, any single way of doing things, simply offers one road to reach a goal. Part of being an artist, after all, is trying to come up with a new vision, a new way of seeing or experiencing things, even if it means bending the old rules or even smashing them to bits.

Twenty-seven year-old Washington photographer Cris McCarthy has done a fair amount of rule-breaking in her young life by turning her cheap Holga camera into something it never was intended to be: a panorama camera seemingly on hallucinogens. By using this laughably crude Chinese-made plastic toy in this way, Cris joins a pantheon of other fine-art, documentary and news photographers who have taken the Holga (and its various incarnations) and turned it into a simply wonderful creative tool.

I first saw Cris' Holga panos at Chrome, Inc., the Washington, DC custom photo lab where she is the manager of customer service (and where my wife Judy and I have the bulk of our professional film and digital print processing done.)

Cris had a couple of her Holga prints with her one afternoon and when I saw them I stopped cold. The first image I saw – and the one that convinced me there was a story here – was an aerial view of the US-Mexico border crossing at Tijuana.

The normal chaos and anxiety of any border control point was only heightened by what Cris did in her camera.

" 'Border Control' actually started as a fun shot for a friend," Cris told me. "I do a lot of work with US Customs (through Chrome) and I am fully aware of how difficult their job really is. As I was heading back into the US from a daytrip to Tijuana, I happened to look down from the bridge leading to the Customs Building. When I looked at the chaos below I thought I might be able to get something cool for my buddies at Customs. I took the first shot and realized that it didn't really capture the energy of what was happening down there. I moved over about 10 or 15 feet to get a different angle, just to make it feel more hectic."

Cris advanced her film by manually turning the Holga's black plastic winding knob, but only so much. Through trial and error over the years, she was able to calculate just when her two images would overlap. "The overlap in traffic was intentional, but at the time I really didn't know what I was going to get out of it. I am thrilled with the result; it turned out to be a great shot."

That's for sure. The result is a picture that is awash in motion, heightened by the crazy way the car lanes leading to the control point now cross over one another. The artful double exposure – of what now appears to be a psychedelic rat's maze – even has one car (at the center of the image) seeming to crawl under the white lane markers, as if in a frantic attempt to escape the madness.

Now I admit: I may be reading too much angst into this photograph. In fact, I am told that a print of the picture now hangs in the office of the US Commissioner of Customs, who presumably loved what he saw.

More than a decade ago, my friend and colleague Craig Sterling showed me some of his own gorgeous Holga work – including a panorama shot he made in Italy. Only Craig's shot – of an ancient Roman bridge – was an accident, caused by the camera's pathetically bad film advance. What happened was that Craig's second Holga shot of the bridge slightly overlapped the first. The fact that the two shots created the illusion of one wide shot was a gift from the photo gods.

But what Cris McCarthy has done – and is doing – with her Holga is decidedly deliberate, employing tricks of perspective, direction, as well as image size, to tell a story in each photograph.

Probably because the Holga camera is so bereft of controls – or rules – photographers have for years felt comfortable in using it as the muse dictated. At less than $30 each now (and sometimes much less), they simply beg to be used and abused. This is, after all, a camera made almost totally of plastic, that has two lens openings (small and large, sort of) and, in the basic model, only one shutter speed of roughly 1/100th of a second. The comfort level that comes from not having to worry about f-stops, strobe settings, even focusing in many cases, simply invites creative playing.

You get a picture – great. You don't – hey, whaddaya expect from this toy?

"Everything is a surprise," Cris noted. "I can go into a shoot having some idea of what I want but that doesn't mean it will work. It's a surprise if I get my shot; it's a surprise if it's not what I was expecting. Sometimes the surprises are so outrageous I could never plan them, but they work perfectly. 'Everybody Needs a Vacation' is a perfect example of that. The UFO was a complete accident. I had lost my lens cap and when I put the camera down on the kitchen counter (lens up) it burned a light fixture into the film. [Ed. note: remember, these are really cheap cameras]. At the time I was just starting to experiment with this method and had not gotten the hang of overlapping the negs yet. I have some pretty serious overlaps in this image, but they give the sense of beams of light from other possible UFOs. There is even a woman and child being "beamed up" at the right side of the image. So this image is really nothing but 'mistakes' but I love it; it's one my really fun images."

The Chinese-made, plastic-lens Holga actually is the successor camera to the equally crummy (and long gone) Diana Camera, made in Hong Kong. Holgas, with their plastic lenses, and the slightly more upscale Wocas – with a slightly less dreadful glass lens – have achieved a certain amount of celebrity in recent years, as top-gun photojournalists like David Burnett used them to made edgy (usually black and white, though not always) photographs to illustrate in-depth magazine pieces and personality profiles. And in fact several of my own Holga pix are likely to end up in our next book, on Venice in winter. Given its limitations, the Holga/Woca may not be something you want to use to cover fast-breaking news – or fidgety children. But remember, that's just the traditional view. Who knows what you would get using the camera under those circumstances? – which of course, is just the point.

"I have been shooting with my Woca/Holga for about 2 1/2 years now and I love it," declares Cris McCarthy. "They are the cheapest cameras I own and I do my most creative work with them – you can't beat that. I have a lot of fun with it. Most people look at my stuff and immediately think it is done digitally, I love the fact that it isn't. Anybody can do something like this with Photoshop but I use a $20 camera. I like to keep my photography traditional, nothing but film. I even print showing the film edge to prove that this is not done digitally. I know I will never do any of my fine art work with a digital camera, I'm a purist. At this point I don't even own a digital camera. I'm strictly 35mm and 120 (Woca/Holga). I can wait to see my images, I don't need digital."

[Technical note: Holgas come in several variations, as well as modifications. The basic camera can be ordered through the Maine Photographic Workshops for $15 (www.theworkshops.com). Pricier variations are the glass-lens Woca, as well as Holgas with a built-in flash unit. I suggest web-searching for these, though my personal opinion is that a glass lens on a camera meant to give weird pix in the first place doesn't make much sense.

My own personal favorite source for modified basic Holgas is Randy Smith's Holga Mods website (www.holgamods.com). Randy not only modifies the basic camera by lessening light leaks and fine-tuning its apertures (all for less than 30 bucks) he also offers what I think may be the best all-round Holga modification: the time exposure Holga that allows you to make spectacular night-time images in addition to ones at the more conventional, 1/100th of a second. About $43, including a recommended modification to add a tripod socket.]

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Cris McCarthy.
The frantic anxiousness of a border crossing is captured in this great double-exposure (or overlapping exposure) by Cris McCarthy. Made with a plastic Holga camera, it captures the frenzy of a late afternoon in Tijuana. (click to enlarge).

©Cris McCarthy.
In the whimsical "Everybody Needs a Vacation," one of Cris' earlier Holga pix, a number of "mistakes" including an errant ceiling fixture-turned flying saucer create a wonderful bxw panorama. (click to enlarge).

©Cris McCarthy.
This unusual view of a street in Tijuana uses multiple images – at different distances – to create layers of imagery that tell a story. (click to enlarge).


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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