Working With Holga

By: Ted Orland

Given that Ansel Adams was my first and only formal photography teacher, it's probably no surprise that most of my early photographs were large-format sharply-focused B&W pictures of trees, rocks and water. Fact is, it took me years to realize that I don't even lead a fine-grained life - that while Ansel's world was timeless, monumental and sharply defined, my own world is quirky, ephemeral and decidedly fuzzy around the edges.

My ability to reveal that world photographically took a great leap forward sometime around 1990 when I discovered a little plastic camera called the Holga. The Holga had one shutter speed, a fixed aperture, and a single-element plastic lens that filtered out excessive sharpness so that realism wouldn't get mistaken for reality. In other words, it captured the world just the way I saw it. So nowadays I carry my Holga with me most everywhere, photographing pretty much whatever crosses my path. My theory is that if I lead an interesting life, I'll make interesting art. How could it be otherwise?

Just so you won't write me off as a total Luddite, however, I should add that I'm also a long-term Photoshop user, scan all my negatives into a Mac to re-work, and output the results on an Epson inkjet printer.

Photography has always been closely tethered to technology, of course, but I've come to appreciate the sheer simplicity of the Holga not only for my own personal work, but also as a teaching tool in the classroom. With its ease of operation and a learning curve you can measure in minutes rather than months, the Holga allows students to begin producing negatives on (quite literally) the first day of class. So while students in digital photo classes often spend the entire first semester mastering high-tech hardware and software, students in traditional courses equipped with Holgas are ready to make art from Day One.

That opportunity to get off the starting blocks quickly not only generates enthusiasm among students, but also frees up big chunks class time for field sessions and for print critiques and discussions about composition, editorial content, photo history and the like. In fact a $35 camera could prove to be an economic necessity for traditional photo courses now that most young incoming students have never owned or even used a film-based camera. (My students to refer to them as "antiques"!)

Moreover, the trend toward alternative processes in photographic artmaking makes familiarity with chemical-based processes helpful even for hard-core digital artists. Last summer, for instance, I taught a two-week summer workshop that combined digital artmaking with chemical-based processes -- scanning Holga negatives into Photoshop, reworking them digitally as the muses dictated, and then creating finished artworks that incorporated any of several alternative processes.

All that's just to say that having been a photographer for forty-odd years now, I've watched as wave after wave of new technology - color, Polaroid, video, digital - swept across the artistic landscape. And each time it seemed - for awhile - that the newest wave would render its predecessors as extinct as the dinosaurs. But as it turns out, new discoveries are additive, not destructive. Each discovery becomes another tool in your artistic toolbox, and increases the potential for richness and depth in your work as you explore new ways to use those tools together.