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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Book Review: 'Plastic Cameras: Toying With Creativity' by Michelle Bates

by Ctein

I'm not fanatically in love with the snapshot aesthetic. Most work done in this vein is a serious bore. Practitioners too often confuse artlessness with art, failing to understand that to produce art when you're standing that close to the edge of an aesthetic cliff requires exceptional clever and nimble movements.

I'm unenamored of "Lomographers" who think that copying the motions of Garry Winogrand make them artists. Garry was a genius and accomplished the near impossible. Not so the rest.

Uninsightful emulation of form just produces boring photographs; they're not even bad art. This is not a technique prejudice. I'm equally uninterested in the renderings of Orthodox Zonies, who think mechanically replicating the techniques of Adams and Weston produce work of comparable artistic merit. News flash: brilliant technique without soul is also boring.
Nothing wrong with fun (viz. my reviews of the $10 digital camera) but there's a big difference between fun and work of enduring merit.

Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity understands both the fun and merit of toy camera photography. It proves conclusively that not only can you produce wonderful art with these gadgets, along with having a great time, but that "plastic camera photography" has no more of a single, forced "look" than does Nikon photography.

Chapter 2, "Plastic Portfolios," is 30% of the book, and I wish it were longer (and that many of the photos were reproduced larger). If you thought cheap "toy" cameras were incapable of producing interesting and diverse art, it'll open your eyes. There's lots of amazing and unexpected work on display. I'm especially enamored of Pauline St. Denis' and Susan Bowen's intricate and brilliant panoramas, Harvey Stein's New York street photography, and Teru Kuwayama's documentary images. Convincing proof that folks are making a lot more than toy pictures with these toy cameras.

The rest of the book thoroughly covers the 5 W's (who, what, when, where, and how) of toy camera equipment and technique. It includes all sorts of cool hacks for extending the range of capabilities of these little cameras—that's half the fun of playing with them. Focus [sic] is on the Holga, but the information's of value across the range of toycams.

Plastic Cameras is published by Focal Press and has a suggested list price of $29.95. Although you could purchase it from Amazon at a discount, I recommend buying a signed copy directly from the author. Authors do a lot better when you buy books directly from them instead of through distributors.

This one's highly recommended.

Posted by CTEIN


photocapecod said...

I agree with Ctein. A toy camera is another photographic tool, with it's own strengths and weaknesses. Creativity lies with the photographer, who uses tools and techniques to express that creativity. Toy cameras bring photography back to it's simplest form - 12 exposures on one kind of film using one or two apertures and one shutter speed. Try it, it's alot of fun.

7:40 AM  
Player said...

An artist creates art just by being himself. Cameras are like musical instruments: if you can't play, the instrument is not going to play for you; if you can play, the instrument could produce "art."

9:01 AM  
m. said...

Unfortunately my copy will not be autographed. I did order it the other day, though, and I'm looking forward to its arrival (hopefully today).

9:40 AM  
C Gary Moyer said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Michelle at a Susan Bowen gallery show in NYC. We talked about the community that surronds the use of toy cameras and she was amazed at how helpful everyone was in getting and sharing info for the book. She did an absolutely wonderful job on this project. I too really enjoyed the personal portfolio section.

Gary M

10:43 AM  
plabby said...

I like the idea of the toy camera, except for one thing, they are expensive (not necessarily initially).

Film and developing, prints bigger than 8*10, a darkroom... they all cost buku bucks. The term "toy" may have applied in the past, but better results can be achieved through inexpensive digital cameras these days.

If you took 1000 frames on a holga and got them all developed and printed it would send you to the poor house (let alone the time it would take you to scan them for permanent safekeeping). That said, if you amortized the cost of a camera over a timeframe as short as 1 year, it's easy to see that you would be better off just buying a d50 and a lensbaby.

I am not trying to hate on "toy" cameras, I really enjoy the analog experiments of people who are nostalgic for the days of pinholes and blurry vignettes, but I hasten to say its a hobby for people richer than me (and I consider myself pretty well off), who don't yet fully comprehend newer, cheaper digital tools, or who are deliberately taking a stand against digital.

I can do the same thing with a lensbaby and PS, you may not beleive me, but the results are indistinguishable from so called "cheap" film cameras, and I saved a lot of scratch not having to develop my experimental shots, which can easily number in the hundreds if not thousands over the course of a year.

12:09 PM  
gravitas et nugalis said...

In the year before his death and In poor health, Walker Evans worked exclusively (creating over 2,650 photographs) with a borderline "toy" camera, an SX-70. Almost 30 years after his death, a beautiful and elegant book, Walker Evans: Polaroids, was published.

In it he was quoted as saying about the SX-70 - and by extension toy cameras in general - "I bought that thing as a toy, and took it as kind of a challenge...I think I've done something with it...and I feel that nobody should touch a Polaroid until he's over sixty...You should first do all that work...the damn thing will do anything you point it at...You really have to know something before you dare point it anywhere."

12:26 PM  
m. said...

I am actually planning to look into ways to digitize some of this stuff. It's entirely easy to create pinhole photographs with a digital SLR, and in a little quick searching on the Internet the other day I found somebody who cut the lens off a Holga and uses it on their DSLR.

12:57 PM  
Ade said...

You can buy a Holga lens with SLR mount from Holgamods. Unfortunately, unless you're using a full-frame camera, you lose the outer parts of the image circle which, on a Holga, is the most interesting part of the rendition.

Believe me, trying to fake the effect digitally isn't the same as the real thing.

5:08 AM  
sarah said...

who don't yet fully comprehend newer, cheaper digital tools, or who are deliberately taking a stand against digital.

Plabby, nice vast generalization.

Execution of an idea is what should matter, not the choice in equipment. What do you care if someone chooses to spend their money on film and processing to create their images? The only thing that should matter is whether you like the photo, or not.

2:49 PM  
dyathink said...

to produce art when you're standing that close to the edge of an aesthetic cliff requires exceptional clever and nimble movements.

well said!

9:09 PM  
MarkT said...

I think you can quite easily 'Holgarize' digital shots and most people can't tell the difference. But it depends what camera you use to a certain extent. I'm looking at 2 side by side now - one digital and one taken with a Holga and it is difficult to tell which one was taken digitally. I wrote a little tutorial on this recently:


I found that if the digital image was a little noisy (eg from a small sensor) it was easier. Here is a set I made from a Ricoh GR digital:


I also made some with my Canon 5D, but these looked quite different and much more slick, though I still liked the effect.

Yes, you can tell the difference between the real thing and the digital version, but I think it is very subtle.

5:39 AM