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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Dr. Burnett's Magic Box

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

"You try to do something different," photojournalist David Burnett said, "but not for the sake of doing something different."

In this case, the "something different" really wasn't all that strange or unusual – but the results were beautiful. David and I were standing in the elegant Hemicycle gallery of the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, where many of his images hung with those of other prize-winning photographers from the annual Eyes of History competition of the White House News Photographers Association.

It was hard for me to take my eyes from David's campaign "portrait" of Al Gore in shirtsleeves on the stump the weekend before the election. A forbidding sky looms over him and the Democratic presidential nominee is exhorting the crowd, his right hand extended. Your eyes are drawn to Gore, not only because he seems to be in the eye of the storm, caught in a perfect moment of high emotion, but also because a curious distortion at the edges of the image forces your gaze toward the center.

This is David's "something different" – the camera that made this image. This is Dr. Burnett's Magic Box – a Chinese-made Holga, a laughably crude toy that, in the right hands, can perform miracles of light and shadow.

Burnett, 54, now has four of these plastic beauties – and he doubtless will buy more of them. Depending on modifications, made by seemingly obsessed Holgaholics offering them on the Internet, these cameras can go for as much as – you ready for this? – $30.95. (The regular price for a pristine, virginal, light-leaking Holga, is more like fifteen bucks.)

Consider that, when the average gun of your average photojournalist – say a Nikon D1 – runs close to five grand, a plastic toy that I once mistook for a squirt gun can hold its own against it.

[Equipment geeks please take note: This is an exquisite refutation of the idea that your photography will improve if only you spent another couple of thousand on the latest hyper-automated camera.]

It is not unusual for photographers like the multiple-award-winning Burnett occasionally to simplify things by using a camera that forces them to slow down, and "lets you concentrate on what's really important in a picture."

What is unusual is that big-ticket news organizations would ask one of their shooters to cover an assignment with a toy and be willing to run the pictures.

And Burnett was no exception to this mindset. Ironically, the stunning black and white picture of Al Gore, shot while Burnett was on assignment for Newsweek, never saw print. "It was never even seen by Newsweek, as far as I know," Burnett told me. The magazine wanted color.

In fact it was only after Burnett started winning awards for this stuff that someone actually "called and said 'take that camera and do something with it.'" The magazine was U.S.News & World Report, which gave Burnett his first real Holga assignment: to photograph the home and drop spots of accused FBI spy Robert Hanssen. (For the picture of Hanssen's house, Burnett had some high-priced help. As it happened, two fellow news photographers, Paul Hosefros of the New York Times and Harry Hamburg of the New York Daily News, happened by the house at the same time. "Harry held the flash for me," Burnett recalled.)

Which brings up some of the technical limitations of this camera.

For fifteen bucks you don't get on-board flash. In fact you don't even get a PC connector for an external flash. The camera does have a hot shoe, however, so an adapter with a PC connector can be plugged in. That's what Dave used to help light his picture.

This is a medium format camera, capable of taking either 16 pictures in 645 format or 12 in the more traditional 6x6 square. Normally, you think bigger format, more professional, right? Ha!

One of the biggest drawbacks of the Holga is its simply awful film advance. No problem, say the folks at the Holga Web site I spotted recently. They have a no-nonsense fix: "Jam a folded piece of cardboard from your filmbox end flap under the film spool."

The Holga is "notorious for having a large amount of slack between the take-up spool and film spool," notes Randy Smith, who operates the Baddog Holga Web site (see below). This all but guarantees loosely wound film and catastrophic light leaks. But, "by jamming the cardboard under the film spool the film is held more taut, thereby eliminating this problem."

Like any good toy, the Holga has absolutely no shutter speed selection. You get 1/100 of a second (more or less) and like it. It does feature two f. stops: f. 11 for "sunny"; f. 8 for "less sunny." You make the selection by pushing a chintzy plastic lever back and forth.

The camera comes with no tripod socket. Some folks recommend rubber banding the camera to a tripod, though Randy will drill a standard socket in the camera for you for an extra two bucks.

The lens, if one can call this plastic imitation of glaucoma a lens, is a medium wide 60mm.

Dave Burnett had one complaint when he first used a Holga at night. "I kept seeing all these wonderful pictures and I couldn't find a way to take them" without making a long exposure. Finally a friend pointed out what Holgaholics have known for years: that you can turn the camera into a permanent Bulb or Time machine by taking a needle nose pliers and yanking out the tiny metal spring that operates the shutter, as if it were a bad tooth.

Now David is happy – and I am looking forward to trying a similarly "disabled" Holga when Judy and I return to Venice in November for some late-night time exposure photography in a city whose magic equals that of this marvelous toy.

[Check out Randy Smith's Modified Holga Web site: http://home.twcny.rr.com/baddog/holga. His e-mail address is: holgamod@twcny.rr.com.]

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

© 2001 David Burnett/Contact Press Images
Bizarrely clad women in stripes lend surreal air to Democratic convention photo when shot with a Holga camera.

© 2001 David Burnett/Contact Press Images
Supreme Court protester during 2000 presidential election dispute.

© 2001 David Burnett/Contact Press Images
Eiffel Tower from a moving car.

© 2001 David Burnett/Contact Press Images
This prize-winning Holga image of Al Gore, shot for Newsweek, never ran in the magazine.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Shooting Fireworks (Indoors)

Pre-Digital Prestidigitation

Dropped Cameras: An Anecdotal Indictment

The Print Lab Around Your Neck

Wedding War Stories

The Eyes of History

Digital Master of a Barren Beauty