Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New directions (no, I have not joined the glee club!)

For the past couple of years, when I've gone out to the local forests and beaches to make images, I almost always carried a Holga or (original) Diana camera with me if I was intending to expose some film. Like many before me, I became enamoured with toy cameras, slowly acquired a few different ones, hung out at toycamera.com and subscribed to LightLeaks magazine. I found fellow enthusiasts at sites like Flickr, devised a few modifications of my toy cameras, submitted images to "plastic lens" shows and life was fine in the blurry world.

It took me a while to figure out how using toy cameras would fit into my photography practice, and eventually I created two bodies of work that combined narrative with landscape. One is "That summer at the lake", which I discussed in a recent post. The other is "My beloved rises from her sleep" in which the images stood as metaphors for lines from the poem of Mahmoud Darwish. I also have in my flat files a couple of nascent series of toy camera images from the local oceanic coast, and I'm in the (slow) process of turning some Holga images I took last fall in San Francisco into a zine.

I remember her reflection in the early days,
when lightning crowned her forehead

from the series "My beloved rises from her sleep"

But recently I've been thinking about trade-offs. While I feel I used the toy cameras effectively in creating these narrative streams, I've also come to realize that this aesthetic adds another layer between me and my experience of that moment as it also does for the viewer. While the toy camera creates a sense of a dream-like or memory state it also distances the viewer from the actual "in the moment" experience. I remember a while ago musing in an e-mail conversation with a friend about this conundrum and writing to her that I wanted to explore the differences in narrative landscape images created by the toy camera and a high end optical lens. This idea has been percolating in the background for some time, and while that's been happening I've found myself drawn to work by other photographers that at first view might seem to be images of the mundane, but on further reflection is better defined as acute observation of what is right in front of us all the time, a documenting of actually living each visual moment.

It's been a while since I've walked the forest with a camera; I've been working on solidifying my wet plate collodion technique in the summer months while the UV light is strong and I can work outside easily. But this weekend I felt the urge to get out with a film camera and found myself picking up my Mamiya 6. I haven't had the film developed yet, but I remembered that while I was making images with the Holga for the "My beloved rises from her sleep" series, I sometimes carried the Mamiya 6 with me as well. So here are some images taken during the same time period as the image above. While I was revisiting these images I found myself connecting back to the moment when I made each:



jim rohan said...


You have covered this topic quite eloquently here.
It's something I have given some thought to recently.
But I think I have made peace with being a "toy camera" photographer, at least temporarily.
I occasionally bring my Mamiya 7 with me when I shoot. The resulting images usually just reinforce the fact that these are not the type of photos I am happy with (or good at) creating. Perhaps someday.


Paul said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for such a thoughtful and supportive response to the post. I've long admired your work and continue to do so - you are a master at working with the Holga and consistently produce strong, engaging images.


J. M. Golding said...

Paul, I admire your ability and willingness to question assumptions and to ask complex and nuanced questions. I always learn something from this, and enjoy pushing the boundaries of my own thoughts.

I keep thinking about your comment that "this [plastic lens] aesthetic adds another layer between me and my experience of that moment ... While the toy camera creates a sense of a dream-like or memory state it also distances the viewer from the actual 'in the moment' experience." I'm not sure whether I could be misunderstanding, but I find myself seeing this as equating the high-end optics look with a kind of neutrality or objectivity. And it seems to me that far from being devoid of extra layers of meaning, an "objective" perspective is a perspective, just as a dreamlike one is.

For example, what if the "in the moment experience" is dreamlike or really does have the quality of living a memory?

In my opinion, a perspective of clarity might be one that any of us prefers, whether consistently, intermittently, or for specific expressive purposes. But it seems to me that it's still a perspective.

I'm reminded of something Ted Orland wrote (in Light Leaks, in fact - issue 18, p. 27): "where Ansel's world was monumental and sharply defined, my world has become increasingly quirky - and decidedly fuzzy around the edges... the Holga...sees the world the way I do."

At the same time, both your and Jim's remarks remind me that I have an old Mamiya (whose number escapes me at the moment) in my closet, and it might be interesting to try it again...

Thank you for expanding my ways of thinking about this.