Seeking Imperfectionby Hailey Eber
The Krappy Kamera Show had the usual elements of a gallery opening—wine, cheese, crowds, framed images carefully hung on walls. But, there were also signs that this was something different: descriptions next to each photograph that listed not just the medium, but also the camera, which could be something strange like “homemade camera” or “Motorola E815.” And there were the baroque neon signs pointing to an area upstairs called the “Salon de Refuses.”
In early March, several hundred flocked to the Soho Photo Gallery, a cooperatively run gallery in Tribeca, for the opening of the Tenth Annual National Krappy Kamera Contest and Show. Fifty images were selected for exhibition from nearly 1,200 entries from across the country. The photographs varied in subject matter, style, and size, but they had all been taken with what Sandra Carrion, the show’s founder, calls “krappy kameras.”
For Carrion, a “krappy kamera” isn’t defined by the price, or the quality of the cameras lens. “It has to with the camera’s original intention,” she says. Most of the photographs in the show were taken with cheap plastic “toy cameras,” which weren’t intended to produce fine art. Others were created with pinhole cameras, homemade cameras, and the occasional cell phone or PDA. Carrion fondly remembers a past entry made using a hollowed out potato as a pinhole camera. Despite the fact that digital cameras continue to go down in price and up in quality, the use of such lo-fi cameras has been on the rise in recent years.
Similarly, last year NPR reported a rise in the sale of vinyl records, due both to an increased availability of equipment. A similar trend is at play in the photography world. Photographers, realizing the limitations of digital cameras, are increasingly getting back to basics and using the simplest of film cameras.
The majority of the images in the Krappy Kamera Show were taken with an inexpensive plastic camera imported from China called the Holga. From an unassuming building on an eastern stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, Freestyle Camera serves as the sole U.S. importer of the Holga and a number of other traditional film cameras and films from Eastern Europe. Sales of the Holga, and other simple film cameras, have definitely been on the rise in recent years, says Patrick DelliBovi, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Freestyle. In 1997, there were just 10,000 Holgas sold in the U.S. but last year Freestyle sold 6 times that amount. “A lot of professionals are saying I don’t want to spend all my time in front of a computer. I want to still be out shooting,” he says, noting that many still find that film lends a warmth, and a pleasing softness to its images that crisp, cool digital pics can’t duplicate. It’s comparable to people insisting they listen to Bob Dylan on vinyl rather than on iPod. For DelliBovi, and many others, the renewed popularity of such basic film cameras is a natural backlash against digital cameras and that feeling that as soon as you buy your fancy, expensive, new digital camera, it’s outdated.
This year marked the first year that the show has included a special category for “krappy” pictures taken with decidedly unfancy digital cameras--cell phones and PDAs. It will probably be the last. The category received just a handful of entries, and the juror for this year’s competition, Jill Enfield--an artist, author and teacher who has taught at Parsons, New York University, and the International Center of Photography—says it was the category that least impressed. In judging the competition, Enfield had a deceptively simple standard. She was looking for photographs that “she wanted to look at for more than a few minutes.” A picture of a gaggle of swans taken by New Hampshire photographer Susan Lirakis took the grand prize this year. Lirakis captured the swans, their necks jutting out at various angles that lead the viewers eyes across the square frame, in black and white with a Holga camera. The edges around the image darken softly, an effect common to the Holga, known as vignetting. Though the photograph was taken just last year, it looks like it could be several decades old.
The shoddy construction of the Holga and other cameras like it lends its images a unique, anachronistic charm. Exposure can be unpredictable, focus is often soft, and leaks of light can sneak into the frame. Enfield describes the aesthetic saying, “for me I find it appealing because everything isn’t sharp. You do have some of the light leaks. It almost looks like historical imagery.” Michelle Bates, whose portrait of a monkey in Nepal placed first in the competition, says “my artistic vision is really heavily based around the Holga.” She enhances the Holga’s vignetting effect by printing her images with rough edges. Though this was her first year in the show, Bates has long been a proponent of lo-fi photography. In October of 2006, she published Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity. With its niche subject matter gaining vogue, the book has sold several thousand copies and necessitated a second printing.
One toy camera fan has recently been focusing on another sort of camera. Dave Bias, a photographer and designer living in the East Village, co-published the Toycam Handbook online 3 years ago and has been working with friends on designing a new toy camera. But, he says all his recent energy has been devoted to saving Polaroid film. In early March, the Polaroid company announced plans to discontinue making its instant film. In response to the news, Bias quickly joined forces with a photography buddy in Minnesota and launched www.savepolaroid.com. The website, which contains an action pack for contacting other film manufacturers to get them to consider making instant film, has since attracted tens of thousands of hits and a core group of leaders dedicated to preventing instant film from becoming just another obsolete technology. Bias and his partner, Anne Bowerman, are planning on staging regular events at the Fort Greene flea market throughout the spring to garner support for the cause. “We’re looking for a look that’s not pristine,” Bias says of his Polaroid fanaticism, “we like it a little damaged. We like light leaks. We like it when the film spreads unevenly. It’s serendipity.”
While companies like Polaroid have claimed older photographic technologies are no longer profitable, one company has managed to turn quite a profit from lo-fi photography. Lomography began in Austria in the early 90s as a group of friends who organized art exhibitions around toy plastic cameras and started to sell them. Today, it’s a thriving international business with stores in Paris, Austria, Australia, China, and Spain, and sales in the U.S. topping $4 million last year, according Ulli Barta, CEO of the company’s U.S. operations, which are based in Brooklyn. Packaging and marketing are integral to Lomography’s success. It’s not a company with customers, it’s a “society” with “members” who buy their intricately packaged cameras and create a “lomographic portrait of the world.” Lomography’s splashy, colorful website (www.lomography.com) offers a neatly-packaged “Holga Starter Kit” for $70.00, which includes a flash, film, and a hardcover book of Holga photos called The World Through a Plastic Lens. In the U.S., Lomography sells its cameras through its website and retail outlets like Urban Outfitters (the better to take pictures of your friends wearing faux vintage t-shirts) and the MoMa store. Barta says they plan to open free-standing retail stores in Los Angeles and New York later this year.
At Soho Photo, Carrion shows off her favorite part of the show. It’s not one of the prize-winning photographs, it’s the Salon de Refuses, named after a group of French Impressionists who were rejected from the salon in the 1860s. This salon fills the entire second floor loft of the gallery with a huge collage of over 1,000 pictures that didn’t quite make it into the show. She pauses along the walls of the collage, pointing out images she might have picked if she were Enfield and then reflects on the popularity of the show. When it first started, there were only a hundred or so entries, but it just keeps getting bigger. “I think it’s a return to just the basics,” she says, “you really have to rely on your vision.”