Toy Cameras – Four Corners Dark
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”
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”
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?
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!
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.