Photography’s Plastic Revolution

We need the Holga Digital to save us from ourselves

Like the original, but adorably tiny

Photography has never been taken entirely seriously as an art form. Since its inception, it’s been a hard fought battle to convince the world that a machine that simply reproduces the world around it could produce fine art. That the act of seeing, the process of composition, and the skill of printing could be transformed into something approaching the level of painting or sculpting.

In many ways, the advent of digital photography has advanced the arguments of painters from the 1800s. Digital photography is the epitome of the static and stoic, the soulless reproduction of a scene that the artistic elites of the 19th century warned us about. Digital cameras emphasize precision over interpretation, perfection over imagination.

Take a look at the top-rated photos on 500px, and tell me what you see. Perfectly lit sunsets. Portraits with perfect contrast and lighting. Sharpness, down to the pixel.

The Holga Digital will not get your images to the top of 500px. In fact, you might consider yourself lucky to get usable photos from it at all. The camera is a mess. Indoor pictures are always fuzzy. Arms and legs blur like the brush strokes of a kindergartener in art class. The lens on a Motorola RAZR from 2007 might be of better optical quality.

Sunsets create inexplicable halos

But it’s the first digital camera I’ve ever used that didn’t feel clinical. The first that has given me the unexpected when I pop the SD card into my MacBook. Each camera comes with a free sense of excitement. Anticipation for that moment when you finally see how the sensor messed up today’s batch of jpegs. It harkens back to the original Holga’s mysterious light leaks and color shifts from cross-processed film.

In short: it’s a triumph.

Honestly, I’m surprised it’s taken us this long to get here. We’ve been playing with Holgas since the 1980s, when a Chinese camera manufacturer produced the plastic bodied, plastic lensed machine to take advantage of a glut of medium-format film in the country, then had to turn overseas to find a market when 35mm became vastly more popular. David Burnett (my favorite photographer) took a stark black-and-white shot of Al Gore with a Holga in 2000 that’s forever etched in my consciousness and stands as one of the finest examples of artistic photojournalism I’ve ever seen. Magnum photographers use Holgas. The ability for a talented photographer to seek out the beautiful in the mundane with a plastic camera and some 120 film has been well-documented for decades.

Images often appear warped for whatever reason

But however this little plastic thing has made it into the modern age, I’m happy it’s finally arrived. We’ve been dealing with this oppressive regime of perfection for far too long. The Holga Digital lets us inject some mischief into our lives, some benevolent disaster. It doesn’t quite offer the same depth and beauty as shooting on film provides, but an SD card with space for 2,000 photos does allow a bit more latitude when it comes to experimentation than a 12-exposure roll of 120.

Case in point: On my way home from work one night, I put the Holga Digital around my neck, and took off on my Vespa across the Bay Bridge. I didn’t take my eyes off the road for a single second, but, instead, pressed the shutter button and captured images from the chest.

The results were exciting. A city at night, in motion. Not an artistic masterpiece, by any means, but a unique representation of something as boring as driving to work.

When a roll of 120 in my film Holga costs $6 plus the cost of chemicals and the time to haul out some spools, developer, and fix, I’m a bit less likely to play around like this

This is what the Holga Digital offers: experimentation, on the cheap. A new way of seeing your day-to-day life.

It’s not for everyone. This is hardly a camera for engineers, or those seeking out the finest portable camera you can buy. For folks who regularly research the latest APS-C point-and-shoots and contemplate which full-frame mirrorless camera to buy, I doubt this will seem like anything more than a joke.

It’s no wonder the camera has been so roundly panned by tech blogs. Though, why the creators of the camera sent it to tech blogs expecting anything other than earth-shatteringly negative reviews is still a puzzle.

5D Mk. III this ain’t

But if you don’t mind spending $80 on the simple joy of uncertainty, the Holga Digital is a worthy addition to your lineup of plastic toy cameras. Who knows, maybe we’ll see a Diana Digital soon too. Then we can open our eyes and see past these pixel-perfect digital cameras and embrace the unknown on digital, just like we used to do on film.

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