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Introduction

The main purpose of this dossier is to examine how the development of the iconic Holga camera, specifically, influenced photography and low-fidelity aesthetics of imagery for artistic appeal. Looking at the historical perspective of the Holga camera and it's cult rise in America, one is able to realize how important and influential this camera was on effects through digital photography today and how it developed a whole new value of photographic art through an archaeological lens. Back in 1969, a businessman in China named T.M. Lee started a company named "Universal Electronics Industries" which was for the manufacture of flash units (Gauthier, 2011). His Hong Kong based company continued making external flash units through the 1970's, until the first cameras with a built in flash were introduced. This caused Lee to come up with and develop another creative product that could sell in the market. The result was the Holga, an ultra-basic film camera with a plastic lens that produced richly textured, unpredictable images with a soft focus, light streaks, and tunnel vision vignetting.The concept of the original Holga was very straightforward, a minimal and very inexpensive camera using 120 format film. This low-fi gem would eventually become a popular camera for photographers and artists alike.This investigation into the Holga camera will shed light on the popularity and cult following of the camera and why it has recently been declared a dead media item. The dossier will utilize a media archaeological theoretical perspective in order to examine the roots of the camera, arguments either in favor or against the use, and reasons behind removing the Holga camera from the market and what that means for avid artists that use the camera for their photography.

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The Holga creator T.M. Lee being photographer for a magazine.

Holga

The Holga camera, developed by T.M. Lee in 1981.

To understand aspects of the media archaeological perspective, it's important to look at some of the key ideas surrounding this field of emphasis. Siegfried Zielinski critiques the idea of technical progress. He states that,"the history of the media is not the product of a predictable and necessary advance from primitive to complex apparatus. The current state of the art does not necessarily represent the best possible state” (Zielinski, 2006, p.7). This ideology looks at progressive trends in the history of media and draws upon concepts that are outside of archaeology. The development of the Holga camera included less in the way of functions that were evident in previously marketed film cameras. Their design included not necessarily the best possible camera that would take clear and concise photos, but rather a cheap lightweight and simple apparatus that could be more experimental in their vision and scope. It's important to address how the theoretical framework puts the development and demise of the Holga camera into perspective.

Theoretical Perspective

Holgaimage

A photo taken from the Holga camera

Today, digital cameras serve as a popular device for many photographers over the conventional film format. There was a time when cameras exclusively captured photos on film. The transition to more digital influences with technology over the years has taken many of the true aesthetic quality away from photography. The use of computer programs for increasing the quality of digital photos takes the natural essence of the photo away. On the contrary, photography taken with original film cameras are developed without all the additional filters that digital photos add. According to Foucault, continuous history provides for the “sovereignty of consciousness”, asserting that such history is “the indispensable correlative of the founding function of the subject” (Foucault, 1998). The Holga camera was later seen to influence certain types of photography styles and also the popular video and photo sharing app service Instagram. The founding function of the Holga photography throughout history brought about the new form of design to an app service. The function and aesthetic of the Holga camera, inspired Instagram to allow users the opportunity to add low-fi effects such as light leaks, over exposure, diffusion, high saturation, and crushed colors to their photos (Byford, 2015).

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A unique photo showing the visual aesthetic that the Holga camera offers.

Today, this low-fi photography form is known as the "Instagram effect", though it was first utilized with the Holga camera in the early 1980's, where the natural look and effect was captured through exclusively the camera. Focuault explains in The Archaeology of Knowledge “to establish the system of transformations that constitute change”. Which is often referred to as the "history of the present" (Foucault 1989, 173). For instance, viewing the Holga camera as a history of the present, demonstrates it's ability to change mediums from film to digital in contemporary society. Before Instagram and other video sharing sites, photography was developed in dark rooms where the chemical properties of processing the image were applied and the final result of the photo was complete without the use of a machine. That history of film development is now a history of the past, even though there have been the accommodations made through Instagram to alter your photos with the same lo-fi effect that the Holga camera achieved. The important thing about the Holga was discovering the unpredictable from an artistic aspect. This means that photos taken from these cameras varied in their aesthetic style, and sometimes the photographer never knew what to expect until the photos were completely developed. Today, this is the look of choice for amateur and professional photographers across the board; and while the aesthetics of the imagery can be accomplished using photo editing software like Photoshop, smartphone applications have simplified the process to the click of a button (Byford, 2015). The Instagram scene would never have taken off like it did without the invention, capabilities, and utilization of the lo-fi Holga camera. Furthermore, it is important to see where these photography styles were first introduced and how they have survived through each decade and into the digital age.

The idea of a medium always being the content of another medium without being eliminated brings with it thoughts on temporality and possible associations with media archaeology (Zwann, 2013). The Holga camera can be traced through media archaeological framework because it re-invented the new with the old and influenced a new form of artistic quality that applied to both hipster and regular folks alike. According to Ernst photography did what Foucault was after when writing Archaeology of Knowledge: “it liberated the past from historical discourse, in order to make source data accessible to different configurations”(Ernst, 2012). Even though the Holga is not as popular as it once was, there still remains an accessible outlet for people to liberate the past into the present with the use of different forms of technology.

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A very trippy effect that the Holga camera can sometimes bring to photos.

Holga: A Cult Icon

Since the development of the Holga camera in the early 1980's, it has become a cult icon among a certain niche group of photographers. Cult in this context, refers to things that are very popular or fashionable among a particular group of people (Harper Collins, 2003). The Holga will never be a mainstream device; the components of the system are too unpredictable and their effects only cater to a small but very passionate fanbase of artists. T.M. Lee developed the iconic camera for working class Chinese people who could afford a camera that was offered at a reasonable price. Photography was a very expensive practice when the Holga camera hit the market. Having a camera that everyone could afford increased the popularity of this device. Those who prefer the Holga, enjoy it's unique composition effects and the certain limitations or drawbacks that are unpredictable until the image is fully developed. The Holga is one of a handful of ‘toy cameras’ that kick-started a lo-fi photography craze through the 1990's and 2000's.  

Photography went through a transitional stage between these decades as digital cameras started to take hold in the 2000's. Media become archives themselves in the way they transmit between the past and the present, and those archives need to be thought of as technical media apparatuses where cultural memory becomes technical memory (Parikka, 2007). The transmit from past to present in the case of the photographic camera, meant that the old techniques were eliminated and easier, more precise options started to be put in place with digital photography; the Holga camera began to become archival material as the digital format took hold. The biggest flaw that a lot of digital enthusiast find is the limited Holga settings, in comparison with today's cameras, put much of the control in the film itself (Eftaiha, 2012). The use of different film speeds, under various conditions, represent the overall look of the image. Though, individuals that do more experimental and obscure photography cherish the perks of this marvelous device and all that it has to offer. The images that the Holga camera creates are trippy, psychedelic, and dreamlike. The aesthetic look to the photographs vary from image to image, though depends on the amount of light coming into the lens, if it's day or night, and the particular object or area that is being photographed. These plastic cameras can be a surprisingly inexpensive way to get into photography. In an age when just about everyone has a digital and most people regularly upgrade to take advantage of better capabilities, it's astonishing that anyone would choose a camera made of flimsy plastic, or requires tape to keep the back from falling off. Yet, both experienced and beginning photographers alike continue to make toy cameras an important part of their collection (Bates, 2006). Moreover, the legacy of the Holga will live on through the digital age because of the cult following it has endured over the past three decades.  

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The double exposure effect. The Holga is known for distorting the image where it almost looks like the person in the photo is a ghost.

Holga Becomes Dead Media

As of December 1, 2015 the Holga camera has become dead media. The CEO of freestyle photographic states, " A Holga Camera really is about creativity and unpredictability and a refreshing medium in today's digital age. Holga outlived many other cameras but, as we have seen throughout the years, is yet another casualty of the digital age" (Reich, 2015). In the same way, the connection could be made to the film vs digital controversy in the entertainment industry. The digital format has taken the industry by storm, with only the true dedicated filmmakers still making their movies on the traditional film format. Today, there are numerous digital influence in our lives, taking away from the true pleasures of past nostalgia. The world in essence is moving too fast and we just need to slow down and pay closer attention to details of everyday life. All the electronic devices in our lives creates a distance between us and the world around us. Using the simple apparatuses of the past would do good in loosening our bonds and reducing our anxieties. Even though the Holga camera is considered 'dead media', it's impact will continue to influence artists. This can be compared in the same way how many artists were influenced by the great Andy Warhol, which his legacy in art influences are still seen today.

Recently, Holga has been campaigning to bring the classic camera back with modern upgrades. Holga digital features some of the same settings that the original camera included, and no LCD monitor, just through the lens shooting like the good-ol'-days (Stone, 2015). The Holga digital will allow the user to select two different frame ratios, 4:3 or 1:1, with aperture settings of f2.8 for darker lighting conditions and f8 for bright light. Developing a digital version of Holga allows this style of photography to keep on living even though the original Holga version is no longer being made. The legacy of the Holga camera will be around for years to come. Their unique properties and characteristics have changed the aesthetic nature of photography forever.

Conclusion

The Holga camera has taught us what it means to be different in a world full of mainstream nonsense. Since their release in the early 1980's the Holga have made a household name for themselves in both China and the United States. Their influences on photography have been felt in today's digital world. Today, Instagram uses the same effect filters that are representative of a Holga image; light leaks, blurs, and distortions. The old technology of the past, has been revived and incorporated into our technology of the future. The Holga will continue to be an important aspect of photography for various artists even though they are considered a dead media object.

Bates, M. (2006) Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity. Published by Taylor and Francis.

Byford, S. (2015) The Iconic Holga Film Camera is Dead. The Verge.

Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners 4th edition published in 2003 © HarperCollins Publishers. 

Eftaiha, D. (2012). An Introduction to Holga Photography.

Ernst, W. (2012). Digital Memory and the Archive (Electronic Mediations). Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, M. (1989). The Archaeology of Knowledge (Vintage).

Foucault, M. (1998). Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. The New Press.

Gauthier, S. (2011). How to Use a Holga Camera. Bright Hub Inc.

Parikka, J. (2007). Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics. New York: Peter Lang.

Reich, J.E. (2015). The Holga Camera is Officially Dead. Tech Times.

Stone, M. (2015). Holga is Bringing Back lo-fi Photography with a Digital Twist.

Zielinski, S. (2006). Deep Time of the Media: Towards an Archeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Zielinski, S. (1998). Audiovisions: Cinema and Television as Entr’actes in History (Amsterdam University Press - Film Culture in Transition). Amsterdam University Press.

Zwann, S. (2013). "To Do Media Archaeology". Utrecht.

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