In Praise of Plastic Cameras

Early in my photo career, a giant morass of self-pity was threatening to derail this delicate beginning. Shortly after college graduation, I was working in a camera store five days a week, and taking photo trips every weekend. Searching for a distinctive style, all I was managing was a derivative and repetitious portfolio. During school, I had begun to make some simple, decent pictures, and having fun in the process. After graduation, however, the enjoyment was slowly eroded by desperation. The need to establish some personal style (and to garner gallery attention) had overridden the sheer joy of shooting film. The job was also leaching my energy, and as I explained photographic techniques every day, my personal work slowly ground to a halt.

     
     
       
     
       
     
       
     


During this dark period, a good friend reminded me about a goofy camera that I had used briefly during a course in school. It was small toy, with simple settings and a distorted plastic lens, and the original cost was $1.00. During college, I was immersed in the technique of making full tonal range prints that were razor-sharp, and found little attraction in a fuzzy toy. At this point in time, however, I figured there was little to lose, and began shooting with it. Using medium format film, and making full use of the available controls (three aperture settings: a full sun, a cloudy sun, and full overcast; and three focal settings: a head, a torso, and a mountain), I began to carry the Diana everywhere, snapping anything that caught my eye.

The true freedom this unpretentious camera offered was visual. The Diana pares photography down to its purest form. There is nothing to worry about except image, and all other considerations go by the wayside. Even composition is somewhat vague, as the viewfinder offers only a rough approximation of what will be exposed onto the film.

A Brief Aside: Balancing Creativity and Technique

The hardest facet of photography is finding and holding a balance between the technical and creative. Allowing the technical aspect of the process to dominate is a mistake, as the final result will ultimately lack inspiration. Letting the purely creative take over can also be a disaster, as there needs to be some technical control involved in any artistic undertaking. The methodology I have developed involves relying on visual intuition during the compositional phase, and then adding technique during exposure and development. The philosophy of pre-visualization is odious, and will completely block intuition. After the film is developed, I will begin to figure the best way to print any given scene, often taking an inordinate amount of paper and time to achieve a finished print. The balance between instinct and practicality is equally important during the printing phase.

After six months, I pulled my view camera out of the closet, and began using it again. After this toy camera hiatus, the missing ingredient of fun had returned, and as time passed, I gradually began to develop and refine a personal vision. The root of my blues was a total lack of fun, and the Diana had brought this back.
While it still works fine after twenty years, the Diana is wearing out, and I decided to buy a new one. After recovering from the sticker shock, I decided to try a different camera, and ordered a Holga.

Shooting a test roll, I was disappointed, as the lens on this particular camera was hideously sharp. Taking a small piece of sandpaper, I began modifications. After some moderate sanding on the lens edges, a light application of vaseline finished the repair. The next roll was much improved, with quirky focus and strange aberrations appearing. This camera has the added benefit of a small built-in strobe, an option that I have been using with glee.

The Diana and Holga reside in a small camera bag behind the seat in my car, as well as the recent addition of an old Olympus 35mm. The sheer amount of pleasure that these cameras give me is amazing, and the lack of restraint offered is a release. By relaxing into this weird plastic camera vision, my main body of work has improved, evolving into a search for quirky mysteries in the natural world. Considering the blue funk that had a death grip on me those many years ago, it was a lucky day that I loaded the plastic camera and wandered into the neighborhood.

Published in Camera&Darkroom Magazine

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Steve Mulligan,
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