My favorite toy I ever received, I was gifted as an adult. It wasn’t for Christmas or my birthday. After their wedding, my friends Jeff and Taylor gave me a toy film camera called a Holga 120N for being their best man. I never even got them anything off their registry.
I call it a toy because it feels designed to stay elementary. I don’t think it’s even intended as a starter for better film photography. It’s like one of those Polaroid cameras you can get at Target, but far less practical or immediate. Jeff’s known me closely for the longest time, and knowingly or not, they gave me a handle on a new hobby exactly how I needed it.
The entire camera, including its lens, is made of cheap plastic. The aperture setting (which controls brightness and depth-of-field in complicated balances I had a fun time googling just now) is a switch with only two options: officially “Sunny” and “Not So Sunny.” The distance of focus is marked imprecisely around the twisting lens by icons: one person, a group of people, and a mountain. I don’t think the viewfinder matches up very well with what the lens captures, and after each exposure, I have to manually advance the film and center the next frame. I seal the back cover with gaff tape and cover the counter window with a business card to prevent light leaks. The printed manual includes taping directions to fix this about itself, though it also includes a cheeky manifesto on the blessings of defects and accidents. Once developed, it produces dreamy shots that my friends Jordan once dubbed “Cotter Vision.”
It’s tempting to pretend and say amateur photography has brought me to meditate on the concepts of gaze, or memory, or subjective depiction… but I still use it like a toy more than a tool. It’s designed to keep you from ever getting too smart with it.
I don’t think the Holga can reliably imitate what’s sexy about film anyway. There’s no instant feedback for candid moments like the Target Polaroid—every time the shutter button clacks, I think “I guess we’ll see.” I could never dial anything in precisely enough to hone it as a craft. So any beauty is incidental.
I don’t think it’s about anything like authenticity either, something I usually find a way to overemphasize. But I guess I like the mechanics. Something like the Holga makes it impossible to forget that photos are made of light-affected chemicals on a roll of paper. I tape the roll shut and mail it to California, with a note for the team to introduce more chemicals to develop colors out of the paper and send me a scan of what I saw. It takes about two weeks round trip. I think I like forgetting in the meantime what I captured, and some of it coming back unrecognizable anyway.
This week I finished a roll of film for the first time in a while. During the pandemic months, I’ve become more taken with other hypnotic, slow, tactile crafts—I’ve learned to knit with my arms as needles, print with cyanotype chemicals, and I even bought a whole kit of those iron-together, mosaic beads for kids. More toys! I list these to my friend Kat on the phone while I take a walk by the creek. It’s all just something to do I guess—constructive inventions for myself, toys brought into adulthood. She’s started playing Animal Crossing for the same reason. I stop to take a picture of just the water. I already don’t think it’s gonna turn out.