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Why Choose a Holga?

Royal Cremation Ceremony, Ubud, Bali 2004

A few weeks ago, an interesting question was asked on Facebook, inspiring this discussion connected to the book, Island of the Spirits.

Doug Thacker wrote:

“John, would you care to discuss in detail, here or elsewhere, the process of choosing the Holga for this work; and how using this camera changed your work habits?”

Suppose one takes initial impulses for granted at times, in this case the choice between a Holga over a conventional 35mm or 6×6 camera. To be honest, I never recall thinking much about the decision. It was a deliberative choice right at the onset of this five year project: I wanted to present a body of work on a very unique and ancient culture, allowing the viewer to have one foot rooted in centuries of unchanged religious and cultural practices, while having the other foot firmly planted in the present.

The Holga — a stellar and very powerful camera — allowed me to do just that.

Doug’s request (along with Tobie’s similar request from Taiwan) made me recall something which might illustrate this decision a bit clearer, or even open up a fascinating debate.

Digging through the archive the other day, I came upon a frame taken with a digital Canon camera from the exact ceremony and nearly exact angle of one of the photographs in the book, taken with film on a Holga.

Thanks to digital metadata details — which I rarely look at — this ceremony happened on March 29, 2006.

It was the day before Nyepi (the day of silence) when melasti or cleansing ceremony happening all across the island. In the village were I use to live, Banjar Tandeg, the local temple was literally a two minute walk from our home and an all day ceremony was reaching a climax. At this lovely temple — my neighbors praying and worshiping, some in trance, stabbing themselves with kris’s, incense whirling while the gamelan orchestra clanged to an intense rhythm  — there was line of priest deep in prayer. One of the priests use to work for us. We called him Made Mystic because he was security guard by day, a priest and shaman at all other times.

I recall clearly the moment both of these photographs were taken…the light was falling fast. According to the metadata of the digital image (below, right), it was 655pm and already was pushing the film for the Holga two stops, the available light simply not enough for the fixed f8 lens of this rangefinder. Working the low light as long as I could — even at times using a Holga body with a clipped shutter spring to work in bulb mode (before Holga’s came with a bulb setting) — I asked my friend and assistant, Wayan Tilik, to hand me the Canon camera…the setting was so peaceful and rich in layered warm light.

The end result in color is fine and meaningful in it’s own right — rich golden yellow umbrellas, neutral whites, hints of dark reds in the temples bricks mirroring almost the tonal hues of the women on the far right dress and Made Mystics sarong hanging from his waste. But it just didn’t present the historicity of events occurring across Bali…a society deeply connected to centuries of unchanged traditions, holding (somehow) onto those roots during the present bombardment of development and modernity sweeping across the island. It color felt too simple. Too straightforward. Too expectant.

Holga on left, Canon 1DS Mark II on right

There have been countless color coffee-table books made about Bali. Very few (other than a fascinating book titled Bali Sacred & Secret by Gill Marais) made me feel or understand the enormity existing all around me. Color photography presented the weight and measure of Balinese society in too simple of a form. Yes, it had meaning and purpose as a visual message, however I wanted to create a document, a testimonial reference, able to remind the Balinese just how astonishing their culture actually is, especially at a time where dramatic changes are taking place across the island, effecting traditions or which one day might erode culture.

My assistant, Wayan, would help me edit hundreds of rolls of film taken with the Holga. Often times he would come up to me say “Bli” (brother in Balinese), “I never realized how beautiful and special my culture really is until seeing these photos.”

At that moment I knew I’d done my job.

Wayan Tilik carrying a Holga at a ceremony held
at his families home in Tabanan. No clue why
Wayan’s standing on a chair

There are other reasons for choosing the Holga. It’s a rangefinder, not a toy camera. It’s very meditative to work with rangefinders, composing, working slower and actually seeing the photograph you’re taking. The natural fingerprint of the Holga shares space with dreams and poetry.

Next posting on this topic I’ll touch on how or if using the Holga changed my work habits as well as some insights into how I actually work with Holgas, usually 4-5 bodies at one time, while juggling audio, even video.

Feel free to present additional questions to topic and I’ll expand upon this theme if there’s interest.



1 MHMedia { 05.05.11 at 11:29 }

Interesting isn’t it .. just as everyone seems to be rushing faster and faster to get the sharpest, most colourful picture in the quicket possible time, retro suddenly seems to be back in fashion. I’m a Russian camera fan myself and can get similar results to the Holga so I’m happy :-)

What really pleases me though is that these simpler cameras *demand* that you take time to consider, compose and take the picture rather than dumping a memory card and spending days Photoshopping them into an acceptable form.

And thanks for the article!

2 John Stanmeyer { 05.05.11 at 11:51 }

True. It’s very much as one works with any rangefinder. Very meditative. To produce the book required 5-6 Holgas working simultaneously with one to two assistants changing film. Used the camera like using the Lieca’s, and at events which often were fast moving. Still, very much slower than digital. There were some days where 10-20 rolls were exposed. In the end, both are vehicles for communication.

3 Saturday 7 May 2011 { 05.08.11 at 15:36 }

[...] Scott: On (Digital) Photography: Sontag, 34 Years Later (NYT: May 2011)Blogs - John Stanmeyer: Why Choose a Holga? (Photographer’s blog: May 2011)Photographers – Jaime-James MedinaGuillaume Herbaut has launched [...]

4 Nigel { 07.02.11 at 00:48 }

A really great blog. I only wish more photogs – especially the more well known and well published – were willing, or able to share their insights and working methods with us lesser mortals. Also gatifying as a dedicated Holga user myself to hear some of my own thoughts and appreciation of this camera coming from an unexpected source.
One question: with the increasing scarcity of film processing labs in Asia and worldwide, never mind the cost, do you have your own darkroom? In most Asian countries I’m familiar with – Bali included – film labs of any kind never mind pro are virtually non-exisitent. Bangkok is a rare exception, and there’s only one there I know.

5 Melodi Botta { 07.03.11 at 19:48 }

I keep listening to the reports lecture about getting free online grant applications so I have been looking around for the best site to get one. Could you advise me please, where could i acquire some?

6 John Stanmeyer { 07.04.11 at 15:41 }

Hello Nigel, an upcoming story will be Part III of Why Choose a Holga? which will include all the layers of post-production of film, including the processing of 120mm while in Bali. Only pen one story a week. Hope to include Part III of that series sometime soon. All the best, John

7 Why choose a Holga? | { 08.12.11 at 22:35 }

[...] questions ever! There is an excellent article as to why YOU should indeed choose the Holga. Click here to read an article created by John Stanmeyer on why he chooses the Holga. There are actually 3 [...]

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