(Credit: Kieran McManus/Alamy)

The simple cult camera that inspired Instagram

A rudimentary plastic camera made in China in the 1980s became an iconic item – even influencing a certain photography app you probably have on your phone.

It looks like a scene from a Southern Gothic film.

The figure, dressed in a white shirt, stands at a lectern like a Bible Belt preacher, shining bright. Behind him the sky is Old Testament-elemental; the clouds gather with the promise of something revelatory. The edges of the picture have a curiously unfocused and dreamlike quality. It is like someone has remembered this single frame from a nightmare, and somehow brought it into being.

The photo is, in fact, of then-US vice-president Al Gore, speaking at the hustings during the 2000 presidential campaign. The image was taken by photojournalist David Burnett, who was covering the campaign.

Most of his fellow pros were shooting on high-end Nikons or Canons or Leicas, serious cameras that cost thousands of dollars. Burnett was shooting with something a little different – a ‘toy camera’ with a plastic lens invented in the 1960s so that cash-strapped Chinese workers could take pictures.

The camera is called the Holga. A square brick of brittle plastic, the Holga first appeared in 1982. Amateur photography was in its infancy in communist China, where the 35mm film so popular and available in the West was very hard to get hold of. A designer called TM Lee built the camera to take 120 or medium format film, which is around six times the surface area of a frame of 35mm film.

The Holga's film is so large that you don’t have to make prints – you can simply make a ‘contact sheet’, which creates a small image the same size as the negative.  This was very common in the mid-20th Century when families could often afford film but not prints – flick through an old family album and you’ll often see these small prints given pride of place among the pages.

When the Holga came into production, Western camera companies were making very sophisticated cameras, with shutter speeds as fast as 1/4000 of a second and meters that ensured photos were properly exposed. The Holga had only a few options. The shutter could be set to shoot at either 1/60th of a second or on ‘B’ (bulb) – keeping the shutter open for as long as you pressed your finger down on the trigger. The lens, a simple mechanism made from clear plastic, had only one aperture.

It was about as rudimentary as cameras could be. The Holga wasn’t built to a particularly exacting standard, so the camera wasn’t always completely light-tight. Light could leak in from all manner of gaps in the back, leaving streaks across the negative. The camera’s frame advance could often be wonky, meaning images would overlap with each other. Getting a properly exposed image without light leaks or other mishaps was more by luck than design.

Burnett came to the Holga via a book called Angels at the Arno by American photographer Eric Lindbloom, who shot the images featured on its pages using a similar camera called the Diana.

“I then discovered the $20 Holga and bought several to try them out,” says Burnett. “The problem is, you don’t want one that’s too sharp…. the edges always have that soft look I like. I started carrying the Holga around in 2000 with my film cameras (I didn’t get a digi camera until about 2003) - it was the fourth or fifth camera around my neck, and I only shot a few scenes with it which I thought would be very apropos.  

“That afternoon (the last Sunday before Tuesday’s election) there was a rally in Philadelphia, and the sun kept trying to pop through the clouds. I had an old 52mm Nikon red filter, and held it against the lens as I shot.  The result, though it wasn’t used by the magazine (I was working for Newsweek) became a favorite. Later a friend suggested I tape the filter on to the front of the Holga lens: I took that as a real technological breakthrough! Tape! What a concept!”

Because of the way it sees, you can try and force yourself to see the world in a slightly different angle – David Burnett, photographer

It must have looked odd – a respected member of the American press corps walking around with a camera that looked like something that might squirt water out of the front of the lens.

“I was really just taking it along for those moments when things seemed really slow,” says Burnett. “Because of the way it sees, you can try and force yourself to see the world in a slightly different angle. It’s a different way of viewing what you see before you.”

The Holga’s place in Chinese photography didn’t last long – 35mm film became more affordable and easier to find in the country. In a bid to find new markets, the Holga’s makers teamed up with distributors in Hong Kong so they could be sold around the world. The Holga started gathering a cult following among photographers wanting something more experimental.

In the 1990s, that cult exploded with the advent of Lomography, an experimental film company from Austria that built an ethos around film photography with simple cameras. The company got its name from the Lomo LC-A, a compact 35mm camera from the Soviet Union. The Holga became a Lomographer’s favourite.

“For me the Holga is the daddy (or mamma) of plastic toy cameras,” says Adam Scott, who used to run Lomography’s UK operation. “It's quite solid really - as long as you tape it closed - and once you learn to see how the Holga sees, you can take some really good photos with it.”

“It is so simple yet can create quite complex effects, and the lack of film counter means you can overlap frames and experiment a lot. Other cameras tried to copy it but the lens was never the same. There have been many versions of the Holga but the best is the standard one with or without flash. If you can handle some unpredictability, if you like surprises and if you have the patience to learn how to use a Holga, then you quickly realise it is better than all the other plastic cameras out there. You might only get one or two good photos from a roll of film but they will be worth it.”

It would be hard to argue that they didn't take their inspiration from the Holga – Adam Scott

The Lomography school made a virtue out of the camera’s lack of features. The Holga’s fuzzy, out-of-focus lens was the complete opposite of the refined, sharp photos usually considered to be the desired result. It is something that became even more evident in the 2000s, as digital started to take over. Most people abandoned their film cameras for the convenience of digital. But oddly enough, this gave the Holga a kind of second life.

In the early 2000s, a Stanford University student called Kevin Systrom went to Florence for a winter semester to study photography. His photography tutor told him to swap his high-end Nikon SLR for a much humbler tool – a Holga. Systrom was hooked.

Later in the 2000s, Systrom began work on a start-up called Burbn, similar to location services like Foursquare. Early adopters found it too fussy, so Systrom and his business partner Mike Krieger decided to concentrate on one part of the app – pictures. Unlike many photo-sharing sites of the time, such as Flickr, the emphasis was on pictures taken on mobile phones. But with the cameras and sensors on these devices being relatively low-resolution, Systrom needed a format and a look that would suit the small screen of a smartphone.

Instagram’s masterstroke was to build in a filter system that could make these smartphone pics look completely different – adding fuzzy, out of focus areas, boosted contrast and vignetting around the corners. Many of these filters seemed to ape the characteristics of cameras like the Holga.

Even with the rise of Holga-aping apps like Instagram, it appears there’s still life in this simple plastic box

“It would be hard to argue that they didn't take their inspiration from the Holga or the creative ‘toy camera’ movement,” says Scott. “I think the square image was a solution to mixed format issues (portrait and landscape etc). They wanted it to look tidy in a grid and square solves that problem but the filters are 100% inspired by film photography and possibly toy cameras such as the Holga.

“Ultimately, a photo straight from a smartphone, and in many cases a digital camera, looks dull. It's an accurate representation of what you see. When you add effects, it gives the photo more character and ultimately improves the photos.”

The Holga has even found a place in wedding photography, for those looking for something a little different. Emma Case is a British wedding photographer who offers shots on a Holga for couples who want an analogue flavor to their wedding pics.

“It’s pure magic,” she says. “The simplicity of the actual camera and the incredible surprises you get… it’s sort of taken out of your hands to some extent.  The results are often flawed, kinked, but that’s the beauty of Holga.  These (never to be repeated) ‘mistakes’ mean that you get a complete one-off a piece of art, something that is a beautiful culmination of that moment and a happy accident. And when you get the scans back from the lab - well, it always feels like Christmas morning.”

Holga production eventually ended in 2015 – though apparently not for long. Earlier this year, new versions of the plastic fantastic started appearing. Even with the rise of Holga-aping apps like Instagram, it appears there’s still life in this simple plastic box.

“The digital apps are a way of cheating yourself out of doing the hard work,” says David Burnett. “They can be fun, but honestly, the satisfaction I get with a real Holga picture (and remembering how much work it took) far outweighs the temporary joy of a digi-cam or phone picture.

“I use it less... but I still take it with me when I think there is a chance for something fun.”

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