- Posted By: Bryan Chan
- Posted On: 11:05 a.m. | September 23, 2010
Some of his subjects make multimillion-dollar blockbuster movies or have sold records by the truckload, so what does Times staffer Genaro Molina use to photograph them? A $29 plastic camera loaded with film. No bells and whistles here. Here’s Molina’s take on it and be sure to check out the photo gallery above:
It was once written that as adults we are supposed to “put away childish things.” Well I beg to differ, especially when it comes to using toy cameras. I enjoy getting in tune with my inner child when photographing with plastic Holga and Lomo cameras. As we strive to embrace all things digital, I find it refreshing to sometimes go low-tech. These cameras aid me in my quest for the imperfect image.
When possible, I like to set my sights on celebrities. The best part about using toy film cameras on celebrity shoots is that they can’t ask to see the image. When told I’m using film, I get the occasional, “How antiquated.” But most celebrities appreciate the camera, and some even use them for fun.
Photographing director Steven Spielberg with a $50,000 Hasselblad digital didn’t impress the famed filmmaker. “Now that looks like a real camera,” Spielberg said when I pulled out my $29 plastic Holga to make his portrait. The plastic camera is a real icebreaker sometimes.
The Holga and Lomo cameras have one shutter speed – approximately 1/100th of a second. Holga is the cheapest medium-format camera you can own. It comes with a fixed lens that’s set at f8. Exposures can only be controlled by the ASA of the film. So if using one of these cameras in direct sunlight, you may want to use lower-speed film. If it’s an overcast day you may want to use higher-speed film. The Lomo is best used when you are physically moving the camera while shooting or when the subject is moving. This camera uses 35mm film. I prefer the Lomo Action Sampler that features four lenses.
The results are varied when using these cameras. It’s like firing a piece of pottery. As famed potter Beatrice Wood once said, “My kiln treats me like a battered wife.” It’s the same thing with these cameras – sometimes you do take your lumps and bruises. But being a professional, I always shoot backup with my digital camera.
The most wonderful aspect of using toy cameras is the variety of effects you can achieve with such a low-tech device. I have three Holgas. Each camera has its own personality and quirks. One has a built-in flash, another has a hot shoe and my final Holga is just the basic camera. The basic Holga is my favorite because the light leaks are completely unpredictable. Each camera is similar to using different paintbrushes to achieve a variety of results. I also like that I’m able to create multiple exposures with the Holga.
When photographing Academy-award winning actor Jamie Foxx for a story about his upcoming record, I wanted the picture to convey something about his singing career. This was my third time photographing Foxx, and he gave me a great deal of time and energy on the shoot. Two hours to be exact. I photographed him at his home and after scouting his property, I decided the tennis court would be the best place for a Holga shot. The court was in full sunlight and the shadows in the background could add a nice texture in a multiple exposure. I discussed the shoot with Fox, and that I was hoping to make a series of expressions that illustrated the posture of a singer. I asked him to give me another pose every time he heard the click of the camera. Fox, who is not only an amazing actor but a nice guy, was incredibly accommodating. The negative film was processed for normal and then flatbed-scanned. The image ran five columns on the cover of Calendar. I had shot many multiple exposures of celebrities for the paper, but this was the first that saw its way into print.
One of my favorite assignments was photographing the remaining members of the legendary rock group the Doors. The photos were to accompany a story on director Tom DiCillo’s documentary on the band entitled, “When You’re Strange.” The only stipulation was that each member had to be photographed separately and not as a group. So I set up lights and photographed each member separately in a hotel room. I set up one black backdrop outdoors in open shade. I asked each member of the group to step outside for one photo with my Holga camera. After the picture was made I would advance the roll slightly and then take another single photograph of the next musician. Guitarist Robbie Krieger was the last photo taken on the same roll of 120 film. “I have a Doors T-shirt on with Jim Morrison’s face on it. Would you like me to wear it for the picture?” Krieger asked. It was Christmas in March. Krieger peeled off his outer sweater to reveal the face of the most infamous member of the group along with the name of the band. This was the accent that anchored my multiple exposure. This particular Holga of mine has unpredictable light leaks and it’s apparent as red flare, which helped give the photo atmosphere. The best part of the shoot was I complied with the band members’ wishes and never stepped on anyone’s toes to make a nice group portrait.
While on the subject of light leaks, there are several images that I’ve shot with my Holga that I refer to as “happy accidents.” My favorite is that of actor and musician Jason Schwartzman, known for his Wes Anderson films “Rushmore,” “The Darjeerling Limited,” and his HBO show, “Bored to Death.” I photographed him in the backyard of his friend’s house. I found a wooden lawn chair that had a nice design and photographed the actor seated in it. I try to photograph my subjects dead center with the Holga, where the image has the greatest chance of being sharp. It also creates a nice vignette around the subject. After having my film processed, I found one frame that had a complete light leak causing the whole image to go red.
When photographing Oscar-nominated British director Mike Leigh, I used the Lomo camera with four lenses. I told Leigh that I loved the improvisational nature of his movies, so I brought an improvisational camera. He immediately became excited and asked, “What do you want me to do?” I told him to walk away from me, walk toward me. It’s always fun to direct the director. He started walking around me, running back toward me and eventually hiding behind a cactus and peering out occasionally. This funny dance between photographer and subject went on for 10 minutes under the watchful eyes of other celebrities having breakfast in the courtyard at the Chateau Marmont. Leigh was so excited he said, “Let’s go down to Sunset Boulevard and see what we can come up with.” The brief 10 minutes that photographers are usually allotted turned into a nice little adventure.
There is a series of portraits that I’ve made with the Holga that I call “The 180 Series.” These are triple exposures that illustrate the three sides of a celebrity’s face. The ones on display on this blog are of actor Ian McShane, actress Betty White and record producer Rick Rubin. I always try and find an interesting background that will work to give the image texture. Depending on how much time the subject will give me, I can usually get a few chances at this. With British actor Ian McShane I wanted to come up with a photo that illustrated the pious yet sinister side of his latest character as a power-mad bishop in the Starz miniseries, “Pillars of the Earth.” With record producer Rick Rubin I was hoping to make an image that was more ethereal and reflective of his mystical self. And with Betty White I just wanted to capture her playful, up-for-anything attitude. At the end of the shoot with White, I told her that our next photo session would feature her in a white leather outfit posing on a white BMW motorcycle. Her response: “That sounds like fun. Let’s do it.”
My best advice to someone who wants to use a toy camera in a professional way is, “Practice, practice and practice.” Each camera has its own quirks. So it’s best to keep a notebook of which films and lighting situations were used to achieve a certain effect or exposure. Always carry several rolls of film with various speeds (ASA or ISO) so you’re ready to work under different lighting conditions.
And above all, just have fun and remember that toy cameras can make you feel young at heart.
Here are some other photographers who use the Holga creatively: Thomas Michael Alleman, Brigitte Dale, Lorena Villegas and Ann Texter. More of Molina’s work can be seen here.