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These days, it’s possible to spend as much money on a fancy camera as you would on a brand new car. Fortunately, it’s also easier than ever to buy cheap ones, thanks to the resurgence of Holgas and Dianas. Unlike the ubiquitous cellphone camera, these humble devices aren’t trying to appear any more sophisticated than they really are, though what they lack in lens quality, they more than make up in character. Light leaks, distortion — it’s all part of the fun.
Soho Photo has been celebrating inexpensive cameras for the past 17 years through its annual International Krappy Kamera Competition. The winning entries of this year’s contest, juried by Popular Photography editor Miriam Leuchter and currently on view at the gallery, demonstrate just how much you can accomplish with a simple shutter, light-proof box, and film roll. “It’s very important in this age of complicated electronics to be able to produce great photographs with very basic equipment,” co-chair Myra Hafetz told Hyperallergic. “In the end, it’s the eye of the photographer that’s paramount.”
So though the cameras may have been crappy, the photographs are anything but. First place winner Kristin Karch‘s black-and-white image comes from her Holga series We All Return to our Homes. To create it, Karch placed a life-size cutout of her grandmother at the entrance to her Georgia bedroom and snapped the resulting scene. In her artist’s statement, she explains that the series allowed her to “create my own reality, one with [absent or dead family members] present.” It’s a poignant exploration of loss and longing.
Similarly, second place winner Ellen Davis used a Holga to reconstruct the stunning panoramic mountain range surrounding Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley. “Because Holgas do not advance the film in set increments, I was able to overlap multiple exposures of the landscape,” she told Hyperallergic. Since she sometimes forgot which part of the landscape she’d covered, she had to keep winding back and forth to make sure she got it all. Giving up the quest for perfection in photography resulted in an image that is far more enigmatic than most ordinary landscapes.
James Rohan‘s third place photograph, from a series called Wide Awake in Dreamsville, was shot with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash using 50-year-expired film. It depicts a blurred, mysterious figure standing on the edge of a cliff, much like the man in Caspar David Friederich’s “Wander Above the Sea of Fog” (1818). On his website, Rohan explains that he’s particularly dedicated to crappy cameras, having taken them up after a 35-year-long commercial photography career. “I think of using plastic cameras as a sort of a therapy, a cure for the super sharp, detailed color images that dominated my professional past,” he writes.
The show also includes examples of pinhole photography by Craig Barber, taken in Vietnam in the 1990s when he returned there 28 years after serving in the war. “I simply enjoy the way pinhole ‘sees’ the world, a vision that is slightly askew, a vision that parallels mine,” Barber once wrote in Photo Technique Magazine. “And I enjoy the fact that everything is not in my control, that chance plays an enormous roll in what I do. As long as I’ve worked with the pinhole my images still have the ability to surprise and astound me.” The images at Soho Photo do astonish. They hearken back to a time when the digital camera meter wasn’t king, when wondrous anticipation and experimentation ruled the darkroom instead.
Krappy Kamera continues at Soho Photo (15 White Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) until February 28.
Correction: This article originally stated that James Rohan used a Holga, not a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash. It has been fixed.