HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Photographic (Page 6 of 6)

Nina the Swedish Goddess of Luang Prabang, Laos

Toy Cameras – Four Corners Dark

Toy Cameras – Four Corners Dark

Toy Cameras - Four Corners Dark

Bonsai at Himeji Castle with Holga 120N

What is the mystery of photography? Why do we love the static image? What is it that these fragments of reality, frozen in time tell us? What is it about the photograph’s ability to transcend commonplace existence that has taken it from an unrecognized set of chemical reactions to the most popular and life-changing art-form the history of the world has ever seen? Are we seeking knowledge of our place within the greater universal complexity? Or could it be that we are a conceited bunch of heretic animals in love with posing for and fawning over our own graven image? Is it not rather that we just love to command machines, fiddle with knobs, push brightly colored buttons and play with toys?

Ahh, toys. Ask most people when they started to fall in love with photography and many, if not most will hark back to the golden days of their childhood, when life was simpler, the sun shone brighter and film was, as the only option available, still cheap. Most photographers of today who were raised in the odd limbo generation of the 70s and 80s grew up on one or more of the futuristic Polaroid instamatics kicking around the house. Or maybe you had the cartridge-based 110 film and disc cameras, invented by Kodak and popularized with the Kodacolor VR, or any number of short-lived point and shoot cameras, that weren’t toy cameras per se, but today can be found lining the discount bins of used camera resellers and garage sales alike, the world over.

In 1957, only five years after MacArthur’s Allied Occupation (which due to its co-incidence with the beginning of the Cold War allowed those in command to rebuild the economy, democratize society and liberalize the stratified class system of pre-war Japan, thus constituting fertile ground to create one of the most concentrated middle classes ever, priming an economy ready for world domination), Fuji Camera introduced the Fujipet camera.

Holga still considers the original reason why Mr. Lee founded Holga, which was to offer people an affordable, practical, easy-to-use camera to take photographs as our objective. Click To Tweet

Marketed to a solely Japanese audience, this plastic camera would go on to introduce the hitherto western concept of leisure combined with the snapshot, for use by the whole family. From the instruction manual, “With the Fujipet Camera you can the pictures very easily just as you manipulate your knife and fork…The Fujipet Camera enjoys great popularity among children, mothers and all the members of the family and affords happiness in all homes.”

Whether the discerning Japanese buyers either disliked the quality or disagreed that mama-san should be left in charge of figuring out not only how to load the complicated 120 millimeter film, but also how to coax a crisp photograph of junior from the plastic meniscus lens, production stopped in 1963, likely due to increasing domestic salaries making production of higher quality and more lucrative camera products look better to companies and their investors. This would prove to be a microcosm of the much larger consequences of what would eventually transpire in Hong Kong with the Holga.

Looking back at the history of the portable camera, these popularized models produced by Agfa, Fuji, Yashica, et al were largely based upon the rush-to-market-mindset prevalent in the center of light industrial manufacturing Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong of the 50s-60s, producing a camera boom. A mindset that was not looking to mingle lightly in niche markets, but to take advantage of the massive buying power of entire middle class populations. It was the Hong Kong novelty manufacturer Great Wall Plastic Factory, in first producing the Diana, which in turn spawned tens of hundreds of clones, that unwittingly launched the modern day toy camera revolution. They were just trying to make a fast buck. In doing so, they made history.

“Cue the Clone Machine”

Despite being marketed to adults as serious, yet affordable alternatives to the cutting edge SLR technology available from a technologically more advanced Japan, Germany and U.S. camera companies in the 80s, these cheap, mass-produced cameras were possessed of a playful, toylike quality. Be it the cheap plastic design or the often blurry, grainy results, there was something definitely lacking in quality, though whatever was missing was made up for by human emotion. Whereas since their inception photography had largely been the realm of nature buffs and burgeoning artists, it was at this time that the by and large middle classes of the United States, Western Europe and Japan began to spend their growing disposable income on any and all cameras, the easier to operate the better. This “chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot,” mentality caught on like Californian wildfire and with it enough money for companies like Ricoh, Minolta, Canon and Nikon to dump millions into research and development, which would eventually culminate in the digital camera deluge visible across the globe. Now, thanks to Mr. T.M. Lee- inventor of the Holga- anyone can be a photographer.

“Very Bright Indeed”

Toy Cameras - Four Corners Dark

Matsumoto Flasher – Lomo LC-A – Cross-processed

Circa the western world experiencing three days of peace and music at Woodstock, others were concentrating on lighting up the globe in a different way. Universal Electronic Ltd., started in 1969 by Mr. Lee, was initially a very successful flash unit manufacturer, that is until the 1974 release of the Konica C35 EF – the world’s first thirty-five millimeter compact with built-in flash. When business began to drop off, Mr. Lee and company decided to diversify from merely peripherals to producing actual cameras as well. Thus the Holga – the name coming from the Anglicized pronunciation of the Chinese characters for “very bright”– was born.

Despite all signs to the contrary, it was not the original goal of Mr. Lee, nor any of the other manufacturers, to make toys, but rather to ensure that people are fascinated and interested in creative film photography. But business is business and in order to survive in the hotly competitive photographic trade it would prove necessary for Mr. Lee to continue to adapt his company’s vision to the often inexplicable demands of the niche market upon which he now focused. The primary target market was mainland China- not the U.S., Europe, or Japan, who could mass-produce better technology at that time- though largely due to China’s low median income and cameras being a luxury item, initial sales of the Holga proved disappointing. As the Chinese middle class grew due to economic reform of the 80s- and with it buying power and hunger for better technology- many cheaper products, like Holga, lost ground and were nearly completely lost in the shuffle toward the new paradigm of the 90s tech boom.

As artists, amateur photographers and institutions of higher learning got in on the ground floor of the Holga Revolution, business boomed for Mr. Lee and Universal Electronic- largely in part to the Austrian-based Lomographic Society licensing and repackaging the Holga in marketable and highly profitable kits. He was amazed at the resurgence of his twenty year-old baby, remarking it was “out of my imagination!” and smartly thought to capitalize on this newfound “Toy Camera” popularity by diversifying into a wider range of products. Add-ons for the Holga or completely new cameras (the Micro 110, 6×9/6×12 Pinhole, 3d Stereo, Twin Lens Reflex, a whole range of 135mm cameras, fisheye lenses, color flashes, etc.) became profitable ways to expand into areas previously unimagined. The future was very bright indeed. Or was it?

“Smack My Hipster Up”

Toy Cameras - Four Corners Dark

Double Exposure on Kyoto Rooftop – Holga 120N

As pixel-based photography has become the industry standard and the amateur preference, and the paradigm shifts more and more from analogue to digital we see various industries scrambling to modernize to a faster-paced, more multi-tasking way of doing business. The staff photographer, along with the stock photography agency, seems to be a thing of the past. Editors now scan the inter webs for cheap “content” (if choosing to respect copyright) that will likely not have made the cut ten or even five years ago. We sacrifice quality for convenience in order to provide twenty-four hour “news” online. Is this the fault of Diana, Holga, Fujipet or any number of toy cameras which gave rise to the popularity of the modern camera?

To ask what is the future of photography is too big for anyone to take on except in bite-size chunks. One might be well served to look back to the origins of capturing images for answers to why images- and especially those taken with shoddily-crafted plastic parts which often “leak” light, vignette uncontrollably, and capture images so randomly that the photographer would have no guarantee that any exposure will come out at all- have transfixed us deer-like in the headlights of a tsunami of cause and effect. Many of which have such wide ranging societal repercussions that we would be smart to admit no one really has any idea of what’s happening, let alone what’s on the horizon.

Is the iPhone’s Hipstamatic application, which applies a toy camera quality filter to your digital photographs, the future? Is it true to say that we want the romance of film without the hassle? Film is messy and photochemistry stinks and, truth be told, film was never the most environmentally friendly product on the market. Made of cellulose plastic and bonded with gelatin–itself derived from the collagen found inside animal skin and bones–it was once highly flammable and non-vegetarian. The photochemistry used in its development, since it only works in relatively few ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, has remained largely unchanged since its discovery (Rodinal for example), meaning it is still composed of semi-toxic and non-biodegradable compounds. So could film-like filters take over what is, after all is processed and enlarged, just a result? Most film photographers scan their negatives in order to take advantage of the cheap self-promotion of the internet and her myriad online galleries. Yet in doing so, these analogues and their imagery, switching their vernacular from grain to noise and point to pixel, become digitized, often using software to crop and clean up negatives, and then print out via any of the number of high-quality printers using archival based multi-tank inks. So what’s the point of film? Is using film as opposed to digital even a relevant debate anymore? Isn’t the fact that it got us to where we are enough? Or do we really need all these niche luddites continuing to proselytize their anachronistic plastic lenses all over their pretentious micro-galleries while talking about expired stock with knowing smiles and carefully cultured converse sneakers? The truth, always infinitely more complex than thought, is yes, we do.

To extrapolate digital photography as a direct result of the Toy Camera boom, to say that Holga created the digital point and shoot in your mobile phone, to credit Hong Konger novelty and flash manufacturers with the digital paradigm as well as their own eventual decline, is not too far a stretch. What will emerge from the next few digital decades? A perpetual backlash against time-tested, though also time-consuming, archival methods or as Mr. Lee experienced when the unpredictable wave of economic tide turned the middle class Chinese off his product and hipsters on- a rebirth of interest in film and more importantly, sales?

Christine So of Holga Limited

Christine So of Holga Limited likes Toy Cameras

HESO asked Holga Limited representative Christine So about what Holga has in mind for 2010 and beyond.

HESO: Any new cameras in the works?

Christine: Well, to coin a phrase, we could say that we have an “endless roll of fresh film” to use with our Holgas in 2010, in other words, there is plenty in the pipeline. We have just released the 135 TIM twin lens camera mixers and accessories, which we are really proud of. They have two lenses so that the user can take two different images at the same time. Therefore one roll of 36 exposures will become 72 exposures. This is a smiley face Holga and comes with an even cuter smiley flash. I am sure this camera will make the people you shoot smile back just as nicely!

Holga-135TIM-BK-+-12S-BK © Holga Limited

Holga-135TIM-BK-+-12S-BK © Holga Limited

HESO: Do you see the digital camera industry hurting or helping Holga?

CS: Undeniably, digital is dominant these days, but I don’t really believe it is either hurting or helping. I would prefer to think that digital cameras are a complement to film roll cameras rather than replacing them. Indeed, digital cameras have changed picture-taking habits, as people are taken in by its many obvious qualities: convenience, picture quality, etc. However, we all know that a sizable community of diehard film fans are happy to spend time in darkrooms and can’t resist the charm of film. Thanks to the internet, film roll fans around the world have been able to share their photographs with a larger public, whether through blogs or other websites, and I would go as far as to say that there is a revival in our favor on the way. I think also that anyone regardless of age, who has the good fortune to get their hands on a film camera won’t be able to deny the charm of using Holga, as it is something you can’t experience from digital cameras. Therefore, for people whether young or old, film cameras, in particular the Holga thanks to its simplicity, break many taboos and offer a completely new and more personal experience. In reality, the two mediums are too different to compare, let’s simply say that it is like trying to compare oil painting to watercolor.

HESO: In a sentence, what is Holga’s Mission Statement?

CS: Holga still considers the original reason why Mr. Lee founded Holga, which was to offer people an affordable, practical, easy-to-use camera to take photographs as our objective.

HESO: How can Holga take advantage of the growing number of “collector-type” photographers in Japan and elsewhere who continue to use film?

CS: Since 2000, we have released a new pinhole series, stereo series as well as further developing our classical models with additional elements, such as – vertical view finders. We don’t have any plans to release any limited editions quite yet as we still focus on quality. One thing it is for sure, the growing number of Holga fans will motivate us to develop more innovative products and revive interest and passion for film photography.



SNJEZANA JOSIPOVIC is immediately enigmatic. Her voice is such that you feel the words rather than hear them, like an animal’s growl, a kick drum in the dark, or a wave’s crash on rocks. And at the same time she’s sweet and laughs a lot, which covers for the lack of silence. Let me explain. Snjezana’s photographs are engrossing and although varying greatly in theme, content and technical wizardry, the overall feel is one of a vast inner life, bustling with behind-the-scenes activity, yet covered by an invisible veil which renders it all mute, even despite her vivid use of color. It was this intriguing idea of inquietude and underground restlessness that led me to believe (mistakenly so) she would be the same: quiet and demure on the surface while seething underneath. She may definitely be seething at heart, but Snjezana is anything but unable to properly express herself, allowing her powerful images- often of young women in dresses lounging on sofas, people using random pieces of furniture to climb in (or out of?) windows, and sparse landscapes which are often over- and under-exposed, punctuated by light leaks, softly-focused, double-exposed and taken with off kilter composition, the overarching theme of, among other things, youth running amok amidst the ruins of the old- to speak for her. Some of it is commissioned work while much is her playing at self-portraiture, yet even in her alluring shots for European fashion magazines there is still that pervasive sense of what she calls “the beautiful process” of the perpetual amateur. As Alfred Eisenstaedt said when talking about photography, “Every professional should remain always in his (or her) heart an amateur.” Snjezana has become the consummate professional by playing the amateur, giving her a style uniquely her own.

Among her many photographic series, and alongside her major documentation of the individual, there are recurring motifs suggestive of travel, vistas representing the void and the vast expanse before us all, which her numerous images of passengers on trains, landscapes taken through foggy windows and long exposures of city life attest to. Yet overall there seems to be an intimacy in each of her images, whether up close with friends and family or from a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea. HESO figured that since the Tokyo – Zagreb Express bus line has been down for some time now, we would have to talk on the phone, that old thing. Snjezana, which means “Snow White” in Croatian, was more than willing.

I am restless. This is what pushes me, makes me go forward, to figure out things about myself in the world, what is behind what I see and feel. It isn’t always comfortable but it helps me keep moving. Click To Tweet


HESO: Hi Snjezana, You are from Croatia and live in Zagreb. What is it like in summer? Winter?

Snjezana Josipovic: Typical Zagreb summertime: the whole city becomes slower than usual, emptier, hotter…with beautiful light in the mornings and evenings. Zagreb is a central European climate: hot summers, cold winters. One or two hours from here is the Mediterranean Sea, a whole different place, a few hours away are the Alps, a completely different climate. Just like all the different cultures around here we have so many climates within close distance to each other.

HM: Central Europe is a confluence of cultures, especially Croatia, isn’t it?

SJ: I like when there are a lot of differences. It is not boring for me. Croatia is a pretty new country. After Yugoslavia fell apart, well…this is also kind of political which I don’t really want to go into, but Zagreb is very centralized. The population of Croatia is maybe 4.5 million and almost 1 million people live in Zagreb. We have a lot of influence from Italy, Turkey, Austria, actually Zagreb is called Little Vienna and here is the center of everything- schools, universities, arts. Of course there is the coast and the islands, which are beautiful, but are uninteresting for me photographically. I see so many other things I would like to make photos of. My experience is what is important to me. This kind of natural beauty in those places you see in all the photos of Croatia are in someway not real. Nothing is real.

What I find interesting is my private experience. If I go to Paris it could be the Eiffel Tower or it could be a window in Paris, in Vienna, in Zagreb, you know, I don’t show the touristic point of view, but it doesn’t matter in the end. It is interesting for me to travel but in the end it doesn’t influence my photography, which is strange but I just like the feeling of movement.

HM: Speaking of influences…

SJ: Considering influences when you work is like having a kind of border around you. When you work it is important to be free. I don’t like to think before I make a photo.

HM: Can you tell me what life was like as a little girl growing up in Croatia?

SJ: The things I remember – beautiful images of me playing on the street with my friends or going to Bosnia to see my father and seeing the few houses on the hills, it’s a very idyllic version of childhood to remember, because when the war started, well, I was very lucky not to have experienced very much of the war but what I did see stayed in my head because many changes took place. At that point some part of my idealistic childhood stopped and I had to grow up. Not only outside influences but also things inside of me were changing at that time. So that time probably changed the course of my life forever, but in a positive way.

HM: When did you first pick up a camera?

SJ: I have no idea really. I guess when I was quite young. But if you mean when did I first pick it up with intention to express myself and to make something creative, it was sometime in 2005. First I was playing with some digital camera we had at home, and with Photoshop…then I discovered film, and fell in love with it!

HM: Can you give me some mental images that you often carry around with you when you are taking photographs? What do you see?

SJ: I do have a kind of chaos in my head, a mixture of images and information, thoughts and wishes, dreams and reality. It can be a beautiful mess though. But when it comes to making something creative from that, from those, let’s call them, mental images, I think I get somehow paralyzed from it. But when I let it all go, and try to leave my head empty, it feels like I have many more possibilities, like all borders are gone and anything can happen. When I see something I want to make photos of, it just happens in a second or less, it can be because I liked the green color of the tree at the moment, because I am in a great mood, anything really.  And the most beautiful part for me is the process, and never knowing until I see the photo how it will really look, and hoping I will like it when I see it, but even if I don’t I enjoyed the process of making it. That is the point for me.

A little bit of that spontaneity gets lost when I have to take photographs for work (: (I guess I must use some mental images then, just to make it all easier for me, because I don’t have much time for playing and exploring then).

Lately I’ve been trying to make some more conceptual work, I’m trying to organize the mess in my head and make some of those thoughts and ideas more concrete. I want to move myself from where I feel comfortable, and that is making everything totally spontaneously.

HM: Do you think of self-portraits as different photography than your other work? Is it more personal for you when taking photos of yourself or working with mirrors? Does that suggest something to you?

SJ: My self-portraits are different from my other work as much as my portraits are different from my landscapes or from my geometry shapes series. Anyway that self-portrait thing is like a game I use to play often when I was little. I liked to look at my self in the mirror and pretend I could see an actress, a dancer or singer, a teacher, or a mom. I could see everything I wanted. Probably I am still like that, and my self-portraits are nothing but a game.

HM: From your photography I get a sense of two Europes trying to balance against one another, one of an older, more conservative tradition that has seen its share of bloodshed and hardship and that of a younger, more vibrant world where youth seeks to make its mark. Is it more what you are taking photos of or the way you are taking them?

SJ: Those are mostly people and situations around me. Something catches my eye and I want to make a photo of it. The feelings in the photos probably talk most about me, though I never analyze my work that much. Often, mostly earlier, it was like I wanted to be part of my subjects, emotionally I mean. I could somehow understand it well, feel it, but I could never really be a part of it. It was like first I detached myself from it to come closer to it. And then make the photo.

So as much as I wanted to be it I didn’t really want to have some real attachment to it. Some connection is always there, but somehow I left some space empty to fill it with all the other things that are probably more important for me at the moment. And those are maybe some uncomfortable feelings, emptiness, loneliness, or maybe there is just nothing. I like to put my subject in silent “spaces” to see what it brings. Silence makes it uncomfortable or the total opposite.

And then…what is there is there, what I see is there, what I feel is there. It may be real or not. Everything is so relative, what we see, what we experience. And I believe that is the only truth in my photos.

My photos, the mood, the motifs…To make photos in this fashion, they feel closer to me, though I don’t necessarily do anything on purpose, but somehow I do do it on purpose. It seems warmer to me, like it’s a part of me. When I make photos of a stranger I want it to look like it’s a part of me. I don’t like working in a detached way. Which is why I use film, why I use older cameras, it’s the whole process of doing it, knowing the model, using the film, which I really have no idea what will come out in development. It takes a week for me to see what I get on film and well, it’s not important for me to know immediately if what I get will be good or bad, because for me it always turns out ok somehow. Of course it’s possible that I’m not satisfied with the result but I like this process.

HM: That’s interesting. Looking through your photos, there is a sense of a powerful personal aspect at work here.

SJ: That is intentional, because I do make photos for myself. And because of myself and maybe, I don’t know, but I’m trying to find something out about myself. Then comes everything else. It is that connection between what I see and what I am, I guess the two dialogues, internal and external. It is also that I don’t like to talk about some things, so I make a photo. Or I draw, whatever, it’s hard for me to express some feelings with words. It’s much easier to try to make a photo…but it doesn’t have to begin and end with photography. I was studying painting in high school, fashion and graphic design in college. I like to change things to see where I can communicate best with the world. I don’t think you should have boundaries in your work and this is where some mixed media work of mine has come from. This is just a game, just playing to try to figure out how things work in life, my little investigations, human perception. I don’t like to stop. People’s reactions are really interesting, but for me they are unnecessary.

HM: Words often aren’t enough.

SJ: That and maybe, I don’t know how to use them right (laughs).

HM: I showed your photography to a friend and he said they looked sad and indifferent. Whereas I see a kind of ambivalent energy about to burst from the seams. How do you choose your subject matter?

SJ: Well I hear this a lot- about some kind of melancholy feeling, but I don’t really think about it, as if, “Oh today I’m sad, so time to make a photo…” I just do it and as I said earlier they are first for me and I can’t really know how such and such photo will affect someone else. But anything is possible, because these are all individual interpretations. I think if someone sees that a photo is sad that is their own sadness, not mine.

Of course everyone would want to see photos of, oh I don’t know, flowers or puppies or something but, we are taught that those images are “happy” and these things are what make a good life. When you see a photo that is the opposite of that, well I’m sure that can seem lonely somehow. But isn’t that all a part of life?

HM: I see a lot of sensuality in your photography. There is a subtle and provocative sense of sexuality running through much of your work, mostly alluding to alternative lifestyles or women in general. Is this something that you are specifically trying to show or is it unintentional?

SJ: I would say it is more unintentional. But sexuality could be something I pay much attention to, and I guess it is noticeable often in my work. Yes, there are many pretty young people in my work, but a lot of this is some fashion work that I do. What is interesting to me is to try to do something different than typical fashion photography, something more personal. But of course, any time you see pretty young girls in dresses it is a bit sexual. That may be unintentional but is also something I don’t go out of my way to avoid. This is also getting to be a bit boring for me.

HM: What, my questions?

SJ: Ha ha, no no, this kind of photography. Staying in the same place all the time and making the same photo over and over again. If I must shoot fashion why not make it more spontaneous. Of course, fashion people, art directors jobs are there to prepare a scene, but it’s very posed. Nothing against that, but for me this is why in the past three or four months I’ve stepped back a bit from fashion and am just making photos, snapshots really, of wherever I am, wherever I walk, because it’s more honest. It’s all about honesty.

HM: That’s something that all artists have to deal with at some point.

SJ: It’s the sort of Catch-22 of photography. You start to make photos because you really love doing it but then at some point it becomes work with someone ordering you around like a robot, “Do this, do that!” It loses the beauty of the whole process, the fun.

HM: You seem to be interested in design. I’ve noticed various shapes, triangles, squares, showing up on some recent photographs. Particularly striking is what you have been doing pairing two photographs together, often juxtaposing humans and natural settings in diptychs. Do you feel constrained by the single square image?

Oh, well, those geometry shapes had nothing to do with design really, although I am interested in design (Laughs). They were connected to a little research project called, let’s say, “Impossible Objects.” I was little bit curious how people would react when they saw them, because (the shapes) look so unnatural, artificial, or surreal… and we don’t expect those objects to really be part of nature.  Also to put them in the photo like they were really there is almost ridiculous. But for me it makes so much sense, like it is real, or like I created new reality. (Laughs)

“The philosophy of mathematics overlaps with metaphysics because some positions are realistic in the sense that they hold that mathematical objects really exist, whether transcendentally, physically, or mentally.”

This sentence is taken from Wikipedia, just to give you insight of the meaning, of some of my thoughts behind that geometry series. Oh yes, and about my diptychs, I never really feel constrained with single frame images. At the point when I was making more diptychs it just seemed as if those photos made much more sense together, like putting totally different segments into one story finished them.

HM: You alternate between color and black and white. It is a conscious choice, a feeling or something else that guides you toward one or the other?

SJ: Sometimes it is conscious, sometimes I put color film in one camera, black and white in another one, and make photos of same subject, because I like to see differences, how the result changes when using different films, or even different cameras. I have a Holga, a Hasselblad- using different film, black and white, color. I don’t like to talk about whether something is good or bad, those things mean nothing to me, but about digital photography, which I have nothing against, but what they are trying to do is to make technically more perfect photos, whatever that means, but I don’t think that a photo is better or worse simply because it’s in focus. It’s funny to me. The only important thing in photography is that you are saying what you want to say, for yourself. That the best photo is the one that is technically perfect is crazy. These boundaries are unnecessary, but this is what people do, categorize things, and then everyone feels at ease. This may work for TV, where people are passive and receive information and then, “Ok, great!” and no one has to think. That is what I don’t like personally about anything. (Laughs) That sounds so funny when I say it in English. We are all taught what is good or bad, taught to feel safe, secure. But in the end we all know that this is not what life is about.

HM: Where do you see yourself in five years?

SJ: I don’t think about the future. I’m trying to make everything good right now without being concerned with the past or the future. I used to be obsessed with the future and I was depressed. I’m not the person that I want a perfect life with perfect job and a perfect family. I don’t know what I want in those terms and sometimes that is frightening. I just know that I want to make what makes me happy now and that is photography. It ‘s not always easy, you know, we need money, jobs, compromises, it’s not easy, so I’m not putting too much pressure on the future. Baby steps.

I am restless. This is what pushes me, makes me go forward, to figure out things about myself in the world, what is behind what I see and feel. It isn’t always comfortable but it helps me keep moving.

Christiania: Interview with Charlotte Østervang

Christiania: Interview with Charlotte Østervang

Christiania: Interview with Charlotte Østervang

Christiana – Helga © Charlotte Østervang

Walking with Charlotte Østervang in Christiania is an experience in humility. She knows, and is known, by almost everybody. And she interacts with them with gracefulness and kindness. One can see she is loved there. One can also see she loves being there. Over a period of four years Charlotte conducted a project that concluded recently with the publication of a book and an exhibition in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark. It will be quite difficult to explain the concept of the “hippie town” Christiania in a few words. This place, a gigantic art/hippie squat of village proportions, played an important role in the freedom of expression in Europe for the past thirty years or so. The history of Christiania is also seeped in illicit drugs. Marijuana and hashish are trafficked freely on one street, but urban legend holds that the area also became involved in hard drugs, possibly pushing this utopian experiment into a place of darkness. For various reasons the government has been eager to normalize the place, and from an objective standpoint, one could witness a steady decline of the original spirit in recent years.

Charlotte’s work, however, does not focus on politics. Her book contains ninety-five portraits of the people of Christiania, together with a short text telling their story. It is nearly impossible not to note the irony of having these pictures displayed in the centre of Copenhagen. Even after discussing it with her, I still think the exhibition is somehow weird. Maybe allowing the exhibition was a bold political and demagogic move from a part of the government, while at the same time another faction is really trying hard to get rid of the “free city.” Whatever the case, Charlotte’s amazing work got the coverage it surely deserves.

Christiania: Interview with Charlotte Østervang

H42: Your work is part ethnography, part photography. What is your background?

CØ: In my younger days I tried many different things, but portraiture has always been where it ended up no matter what I did. I was educated in an art school in Prague but I wasn’t sure about how to develop my photography. Christiania made me the photographer I am because I was more interested in Christiania and its people than in photography per se. My dream had always been not to put myself inside a box but float inside photojournalism, portraiture, art…

H42: How did you learn the techniques of photography?

CØ: At school I learned large format camera, which I brought up here to do architecture photography. And I got caught up in that slow way of doing things. I fell in love with this therapeutic way of letting the images slowly develop on many levels. I also thought it was good for this project because Christiania is a slow place. Working this way, you meet people and get to know them. It wouldn’t have worked with big, new digital cameras. I think I really made the right choice, also because when setting up my equipment, people saw it as a kind of old fashioned theater.

I just biked around waiting to see a spot that I liked, a person whom I wanted to take a picture of, a story I wanted to tell... Click To Tweet

H42: You used a Polaroid back, right?

Christiana - Unoderne © Charlotte Østervang

Christiana - Unoderne © Charlotte Østervang

CØ: Yes, I chose that type of film (Polaroid Polapan; out of production) back in 2004 and fell in love with it. It’s not really easy to work with because you have to put the negative in water and all kinds of stuff like that. But you don’t have to go to the developer; you are independent in a way. And also I could give a Polaroid to the people, which really made it popular. I am happy to have used this slow film (25 iso): the person being photographed really had to concentrate on the shoot. The aperture was 8.0 and very often the shutter speed was 1/8th of a second. “Don’t even breathe” was what I told them. But it has such rich tones; it’s wonderful to work with.

H42: What is your failure to success ratio? How did you choose the final pictures?

CØ: There are ninety-five pictures in the book and I shot about three hundred. For example, the first three years I shot three pictures with each person. We never disagreed on the one that should be selected when I got back to them. It’s all about a little thing with the eye, or the way you stand. It’s really small things but it makes a huge difference in the end.

H42: Can you describe your workflow method?

CØ: I just biked around waiting to see a spot that I liked, a person whom I wanted to take a picture of, a story I wanted to tell… Then I’d ask if they wouldn’t mind standing for a portrait. I’d set the equipment and ask for ten minutes of their time. The talk actually developed from the picture. To write the stories, I’d find them again and go to their house, sit and talk while drinking coffee. I started taking pictures of the people that I knew and then slowly worked my way deeper into the community. And when you are in the street making that kind of theater, people get to know you. People talk, they know their neighbor had a picture, etc. I came back again one year later to get the permission/signature to put the pictures in the book and exhibition. And then I realized I needed more for the stories, because pictures are not enough for me. So I went back again to conduct interviews. I’d get home to write and go back the next day and we’d work on it together to finish it. And now I am back for the last time to give them the book! I’ve visited about five or six times…

H42: So one day you woke up and said, “Hey, I’m going to do that stuff in Christiania”?

CØ: Yes! [laughs] Actually it was a Saturday night. I remember biking around, asking permission to shoot and everybody was shrugging: “do whatever you want, anybody can take picture if they want to…” Outside of “Pusher Street” (the street where people deal hashish), people don’t care. Actually, they find it interesting. Because they are people who are proud of what they are, the life they have. I also met the cultural chairwoman and asked her feelings about it. I had been dreaming about this project for five years already–one of those projects you keep talking about and nothing happens. I also wanted to use it as an educational journey in photography, which is much more important to me than a school diploma. I started with an Avedon phase, as you see in the beginning of the book. Then I went to the USA. Unfortunately he had just died and I never got to meet him. Then I took a course at the International Center of Photography and I met Shelby Lee Adams. He mixes genres and his portraits are so rich with stories. I really admire his work. I also worked with Antonin Kratochvil from Czech Republic. I traveled in Eastern Kentucky with Adams and worked in New York City with Kratochvil. I learned a lot during this half year, mainly their approach and their way of thinking. So I went back to Christiania for three more months of shooting, knowing then that I should show their real background to tell the story. It made it much more complicated: now I had to know the people and their relation to the area. Before, when I was working with a white background, I was standing at the drugstore and just picked up people. The whole thing could have been done in three weeks. It also became more interesting with this opportunity to bike around and knock on those old wooden doors full of mysteries. Then I went back to America again, to see the same people and host an exhibition there. Then back to Denmark to shoot again…

H42: You also mentioned you actually lived in Christiania?

Christiania - Shack - © Arnaud de Grave

Christiania - Shack - © Arnaud de Grave

CØ: Yes, I borrowed a house for the second and third shooting season. I later sold my apartment, bought a caravan and placed it next to Christiania. I was spending a lot of money to educate myself and do this project; my financial situation was a complete disaster. I could earn freedom by selling my apartment and starting all over again. It was fantastic to move to Christiania because that was when things really started to happen. I was scared though, about what the Christianites would think about me trying to work my way into Christiania with a caravan. When I placed the caravan at the edge of Christiania, they started coming out of the woods, asking if I wanted some help, to come to their house for heating. Then I continued living there, to follow all the meetings and the politics. It was both great and awful. I lived there during their worst year because of this enormous external pressure they experienced from the government. It has been awful to see such hatred when you come down to the political scene. It struck me hard but it was also good for me to see another side of it.

H42: How come you finished it up with this exhibition in central Copenhagen? From an external point of view it looks like a political statement from the commune. It looks demagogic to me…

CØ: Everybody can apply for the square, so anybody can put on a photographic exhibition there. But it is kind of funny, and I like the teasing in it, because the administration that is affecting Christiania is actually just around the corner. The people working to remove Christiania walk everyday in front of the exhibition, and I invite them into the caravan for coffee everyday when I see them. Since 2002, the government and police have been working very hard to tackle the hashish problem, but in a very narrow minded way that fails to involve Christiana residents and take their interests into account. They have done a lot to create bad headlines and negative stories in newspapers, and now Danish people don’t have the same tolerance and interest in the place.

H42: I particularly like the fact that this political situation doesn’t show in your work…

CØ: Yes, that makes me proud. It is an exhibition for everybody, showing the people’s face of Christiania. But my motivation was not only artistic, because the reports have been very manipulating. The government made and showed fancy development plans for Christiania, as if they were trying to look at the situation carefully. But they didn’t. So my work is some sort of silent provocation, a silent riot act.

H42: Finally, what has been your greatest reward?

CØ: When going back to Christiania with books, like I did before, not phoning, just going there, the reaction of the people showed me my project was a gift to Christiania. Even the toughest guys took the book to their heart and said they were going to give it to their family. So the biggest achievement is the acceptance and respect I got from the people I photographed. The second biggest is the exhibition location and the fact that I put the caravan there. No newspaper wrote about the book, and I get my reviews from the street, as nobody knows I am the photographer. Also the reaction of the people displayed there is fantastic. They often come and stand looking at themselves. It is very touching. They listen to what people say about them and sometimes say: “Hey, it’s me.” They end up being photographed again next to their picture. It really gives the exhibition a depth I was not thinking about.

H42: It wouldn’t happen in a gallery!

CØ: Exactly, it starts in the morning with the office people and goes to the school kids and housewives. Then come the tourists and some drunk people. I get a huge variety of people. It is going to be difficult to go into a real gallery again!

Charlotte’s website: Oestervang.dk

Christiana website: Christiania.org

Book Information:

FRISTADEN Christiania 2004-2008
Photography and text by Charlotte Østervang
Bastard Books
(dist. & sales: Verve Books)
ISBN 978-87-92359-13-1

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