Featured: I’m over Holgas. Done.
A guest article by Bill Putnam, in which he explains why he is finished with Holga cameras.
I never thought I’d ever write this: I’m over Holgas. Done. Fin’. Dropping that mic. Thing is: this decision has sort of put me in a bind.
I’ve been a photojournalist and now photographer since 1998. Oft deployed for the American Army or in war zones as a civilian I always had a Holga. Always.
My two decade-long dalliance with the Holga began shortly after my first deployment to Kosovo, I found myself back in Seattle hanging out with a friend. We each bought one of those cheap, plastic wonder boxes. I’d never shot 120 and this seemed like a helluva introduction to the format. It was actually Josh’s idea. Relatively new to the craft I handed over the $15 or $20 it cost with a roll of film (Tri-X, I believe).
Since then I’ve acquired Holgas. A lot of Holgas. It was back in Kosovo on another deployment where I randomly ran across Holgamods dot com. I consider Randy a friend so this decision might hurt him (sorry, dude!).
Somewhere deep in my archives there’s a photo of me and Henry Rollins shot on a Holga in Kuwait. I approached him and asked if we could take a photo. He pointed at the camera asking “what the hell is that?” With a simple click-clunk his handler took the photo and went about our day. He went on to Iraq on a USO tour. I went home on leave.
A couple of months later, back in Iraq, the Holga broke. War is hell on cheap plastic boxes. The amazing staff at Bluemoon Camera in Portland sent me a new one. I had it both trips to Iraq and it finally broke on my first trip to Afghanistan.
I shot mostly black-and-white (the landscape reminded me of central Oregon) and some color. I couldn’t replace the broken Holga because I was literally at the edge of the empire, maybe a kilometer from the Afghan-Pakistan border. The second trip I bought a normal one and a 35mm panoramic model.
Since leaving “The Game” in 2013, Randy has even modified a couple to shoot with a waist-level finder. Which is great because I’m tall and shooting from different angles, normal ones even, is easier with a WLF when I’m shooting street photos with the Holga. Mostly though I shoot Tri-X with a normal Holga and this is where I hit that bind.
I’ve been shooting a project since December 2006 on a Holga. I make photos whilst driving on long-distance road trips. It will be a zine at some point. Maybe even a series of them.
The Holga is pretty much a point and shoot camera and I’ve rarely had bad exposures even in crazy light. I like the funky look of the f8 60mm lens. It’s almost poetic in some way. The camera freezes a moment and it’s up to the viewer to render and decipher it.
What I don’t like is the gamble of a loose roll. You know what I’m talking about, where the roll isn’t quite tight and bulges out past the spool. The number of such ruined rolls over the last 20-plus years has been too many to count. I have tried ways to keep the film tight. Garbage bag clasps, washers made of gaffers tape, odd bits of film box cardboard. None of it works.
Finally, after a trip back to DC and Pennsylvania in September I hit my breaking point. The gaffer tape washer I used made the camera impossible to turn. So I tried a bread bag clip. That didn’t work despite trying the clip in different positions. Three of the five rolls were loose. The other two, randomly, were tight. The light leak funkiness that people rave about ruined those loose rolls. So I’m done. Fin. Dropping that mic.
Only now I’m not sure how to proceed with this project. The quandary I’m at is philosophical and technical.
What options are out there to replace the Holga? A Fuji GA645 or GS645, maybe. But those are finicky and old and I imagine it’s difficult to shoot whilst driving. Using my Mamiya C300 is out of the question too. Maybe I can design a 3D printable rig. Maybe.
My next options are a 35mm camera. Maybe my Leica M6 or a Leica II? Or my Nikon F4? I’ve looked into sports finders for my F4 and brightline finders for my Leica. Those are options. They might even be safer actually.
This is where the philosophical question comes in.
Can you switch up formats – 120 to 135 – mid project? Is it a new project at that point? I don’t know. I have been wrestling with this idea for the last week or so. I like to think the project remains the same because the content is the same – fleeting moments captured in black-and-white along America’s highways. Then again, someone may say it’s a different project if the images are in different formats.
At this point I’m not sure what to do. I’m driving back to DC again in November. I may break out my F4 with a 35mm lens and set it up like a Holga: f8 at roughly 1/60 pre focused to infinity, loaded with Tri-X (or HP5+). No idea if I’ll have that sport finder though.
Let me know in the comments what you think. I’m genuinely curious what others think about this philosophical and technical quandary. Til then, a friend of mine is getting all of my Holgas.
Bill has a desk job in Chicago and photographs whenever he can. He develops his own film (in his bathtub). He might also be the last person to shoot Kodachrome in a war zone. You can see more of his work on Instagram @billputnamphoto and on his website at billputnamphoto.photoshelter.com
Thanks to Bill for sharing his experience with the Holga. If you would like to write for JCH then you can drop me a line here and we can feature you on the site.
Comments and thoughts are of course welcome.