Visual Art | Point and Shoot: Saans Gallery’s Holga show gives photography some retro action. 

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The digital age has several implications for photography: more technical manipulative control, instant results and the elimination of darkroom developing. These developments have simultaneously decreased demand for—and pushed the envelope of—fine-art photography. The Holga Show 2008 at Saans Gallery takes photo art back a couple decades to the age of toy cameras—which, in the middle of the digital boom, have become a sort of cult favorite.

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Juried by Utah toy camera artist Amanda Moore and Steph Parke (supervising editor of Light Leaks. an indie, international photo magazine available to Salt Lakers via Saans only), the exhibition began with a call for entries that brought hundreds of submissions from around the globe. In the end, about 70 percent of the show represents the work of local artists with a certain love for Holga cameras. “It’s interesting to see images from all over,” Saans curator Shalee Cooper says of the resulting prints, “to see what people shoot.”

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And what do they shoot? Many persist with sort of iconic images (old signs, flowers, children, desert landscapes) and photo clichés (Eiffel Tower, Venice, etc). Yet many push the boundaries imposed by such a simple and cheap camera. This is what Cooper hopes to bring to Saans with the annual Holga show—truly contemporary images through a retro-dated lens.

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Developed in China in the early 1980s for the purpose of accessibility via simplicity and for commercial use, the Holga camera is straightforward, user-friendly and undaunting. In sharp contrast to the digital cameras of the 21st century, the allure of these plastic cameras is their unpredictable nature; the resulting anomalies are the desired result. “It forces you to shoot for instinct,” says Cooper. Light leaks, vignetting and blurred edges are indicative of this vintage point-and-shoot. It is a medium-format camera that uses 120mm film, and—as with any simple photosensitive process—it can be manipulated, often in-camera, and thus yields variable results.

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“[They are] so dreamlike, so surreal,” Cooper says of the grouping of prints. They all hang together on a steel sheet with unobtrusive magnets, uninterrupted by titles and names, which are placed beneath. The display method is as accessible as the photos themselves, and lends itself well to highlighting the similarities in quality the pictures hold. Although they are all printed in the standard 5-inch by 5-inch format (which was a requisite for the show), they are printed on various kinds of paper and exhibit many different methods, despite the rather uniform aesthetic they represent.

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One popular in-camera effect is double exposure. This can be achieved on purpose and can allow a great deal of collage control, since the film does not advance unless it’s wound manually. This tactic is nothing new in photography, yet when there is this minor element of control in an otherwise mostly uncontrollable process, it forces a certain focus on composition and artistic intention. Terry Bayerlein’s photos exemplify this. They are double exposures of bridges, a common theme in her work; the same image layered on itself but flipped upside down. The effect is more design than image—you almost don’t realize you are looking at a bridge and that the radiating lines and formal elements are a photographic trick. It’s a simple exposure, yet it gives a sophisticated end result—not to mention the precision it takes to layer them so evenly.

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Another artist employing multi-exposure is Felix Flores—who uses “in-camera collage” to create (when not cropped to the required 5 inch x 5 inch) a long sort of nightmarish panorama—a freaky figurative narrative of folks in costume. “Halloween Night, NYC” is layered intentionally, and the decorated faces and ghostlike, half-transparent figures emphasize the strangeness. It proves a very interesting take on collage. They are the closest you’ll get to experiencing the masquerade ball in Labyrinth.

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A few other photographers showcase Holga’s charmingly diaphanous and exaggerated light quality: Sabrina Johnson (“My Dad”), Brett Johnson and Brice Okubu, whose nebulous, color distorted, exquisite picture of something normally unremarkable—birds in the sky. Another compositionally sound, lovely photo with elegant shadows and modest intention is Ben Thomas’ image of an empty swimming pool. This is particularly worth mentioning when you consider his loud, in-your-face pieces currently next door at Kayo. It is the polar opposite of the raunchy, angsty panels that are trying so hard to shock; this photo is subtle and ephemeral—in a strange way, one somehow legitimizes the other.

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Cooper’s vision—to foster creative photography, and to curate exhibitions accordingly that reveal old and new methods alike—is realized through shows like the annual Holga exhibition. In conjunction with more traditional and avant-garde techniques, the blast from the past toy cameras hold their place in photography’s contemporary realm. They are all just different ways of seeing, and capturing.

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Upcoming at Saans in February: For the Love of Polaroid! (submissions due Jan. 7).

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THE HOLGA SHOW 2008
nSaans Downtown Gallery, 173 E. Broadway, Through Jan. 5, 328-8827, SaansDowntown.com

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About The Author

Cara Despain

Bio:
Cara Despain is an artist, freelance art writer and curator. She is co-curator of GARFO Art Center and faculty at the Visual Art Institute.

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