CK Interviews

Name: Robert Holmgren
Hometown: California
Interests: Photography, Holga
Posted: 06.28.07

CK → These days the Holga camera has become to be a household name in photography. And Ithink you'll find after reading and reviewing Robert Holmgren's Holga photos, that he has mastered this little plastic toy camera. Robert's strong sense of composition and lighting combined with the unique effects of the Holga are living proof that is less about the camera and more about what you do with. It has been my pleasure to have been able to speak with Robert and to get to know his creative process better.



Robert do you mind giving us a brief description of your photographic background?

I got my first 'real' camera while in the Navy and took an immediate liking to the possibilities. I'm not sure I would have gone to college afterwards without the attraction of learning more about photography.

For several years my picture taking had been of the personal fine art variety, but eventually it became clear that I should make my living at it as well. After a short period of assisting some very fine editorial photographers I struck out on my own, and for the past 20+years I've shot primarily for corporations and magazines. Meeting and photographing interesting people in places I'd never otherwise have access to was a bonus.

In spite of my assignment work, my interest in a more personal type of image making remained. Early in 2005 I began shooting with a Holga camera. I had owned one for several years but had trouble getting acceptable results. Thankfully, I discovered people over the internet who had been able to resolve this problem and were kind enough to share that information. In the process I discovered a community of like-minded photographers. With a Holga you're not always confident what you'll get, but a lot of people like the challenge and unique results.



In the past few years I've seen a lot of professional photographers using toy cameras to express themselves creatively. It's obvious from looking at your Holga photos, the you have come to master the kind of imagery that works best with the Holga camera. Can you tell me more about what initially attracted to you to using this camera and why you think more low-fi photography is becoming more and more popular?

I remember reading the obituary of legendary guitarist Link Wray who had developed a unique sound. Turns out he had punched holes in his speakers that resulted in his unique distorted sound. I think Willie Nelson's well worn guitar has a similar effect. Tools do affect how the end product is perceived. Given a choice between the latest and greatest technology and something clearly inferior you can count on steady traffic towards yesterday. Clearly, the Holga has become tha backward nod, and now with the easy perfection of digital photography, distortion has become an attractive response.

For me it was also an opportunity to declutter the visual process. The kind of photography I earned a living at was for the most part magazine environmental portraiture. Over time the expectation became nearly equal to the exacting requirements of advertizing. The result was more lighting, production and pre-thought solutions. The Holga offered a vacation from all that; Guessed focus, hoped for exposure and erratic framing, and it didn't need a camel and a sherpa before you laid eyes on some visual flotsam. More and more I found myself taking walks with the camera and open to whatever presented itself. Just the kind of thing that caused me to pick up a camera in the beginning. A back to the future kind of thing.



Creating images with the Holga means that you have to use film and film processing. I noticed that you leave the film edges on your Holga photos, so you must have a connection to film in some way.

What are your feelings and opinions about creating images, the old school way (film/paper) as opposed to imaging digitally?

If you're familiar with the photography of Alex Soth you may know of his blog.  Recently he had a post that resonated with me.  He noted a certain sterility that comes with contemporary color photography and digital processes.  At the time I met Soth, a few years back, he was shooting 8x10 film and made large C prints, and the effect was similar to digital in that the materials didn't announce themselves nor were flaws apparent.  Not to disparage Alex Soth — his prints and vision are wonderful--but when you look at a lot of similar photography it seems to have a dulling affect.  Of course that comes from one who in his photographically formative years did constant battle with the artifacts of chemical based methods.  Now with the rise of digital the film base and grain have new-found utility in being 'the other'.  

While I personally develop all the film I shoot, I scan my film and perform various adjustments in Photoshop that mimic what I would do in the darkroom.  The tonalities and contrast I'm able to achieve in the digital darkroom are not easily done in a conventional darkroom.  And yet I would admit to feeling not properly committed to what the end result suggests.  Although my borders come from various prints made with negative carrriers I've filed down, I'm conflicted about them--although not seriously enough to return to struggles in the darkroom.

When I first began shooting with the Holga the results were so poor that walking on the negative and cutting it up improved the image.  I've also soaked prints in oil, stained them with coffee or tea, baked them in the oven, buried, burned, varnished, folded stapled and mutilated in an effort to take back some of what is given over to the machine.  For my subject matter those techniques tend to get in the way of what I'm seeing and imagining the image to be when I raise the camera to my eye.   When I have doubts about technique I tend to simplify.  Currently I'm experimenting with other subject matter that might be better suited to more overt post process manipulation.

Photography has always been about reproducing a vision that we've acquired from a range of new technological developments.  I don't dislike digital, but I was formed in an analog time that has meaning to me and I am now able to borrow from both digital and analog.  Recently I came across a formal portrait taken in the late 1930s of one of my aunts.  It fascinated me because I only remember meeting her only once during a visit to the mental hospital where she complained about being kept.  Today no mental hospital would see fit to hold her.  In considering her tragic history I was struck by how the photo aged in a way that carried with it the tools of its making.  It was as if the dimension of time was embedded at the moment it was taken and printed.  No one could know the course of this life nor how the print would be altered.  This print had acquired a new and unforeseen value.  Similarly, I suspect we won't know how time will interact with the photographs currently being made.



Will you please explain what recent post by Alex Soth “resonated” with you and why?

Alex Soth's observation that a lot of contemporary color photography had an 'airless' 'sterility' of 'frozen perfection' was an argument in favor of a more tactile photography.  He commented on photos that were dramatically altered by the hand of the photographer. ( Link )  These effects can be seen in more subtle ways too. As we move into digital processes there is less physical contact with the end product print.  With film you physically manipulate film into the camera and as we've seen with the Holga and other toy cameras this can result in aberations. Next comes the physical aspects of developing that result in variability.  And when conventional black and white prints are made in a darkroom, individuals will make all sorts of decisions that impact how a photo looks. To that add various other processes such as toning and bleaching all of which are aspects of touching the physical object.  Compared to digital it is a different sort of opportunity–not better, necessarily, but different somehow.  Having said that I would also add that I've come to appreciate the role digital can play in making superior images that reflect the digital aesthetic.  But I do like to be reminded of film grain and optical imperfection.



Your photos have a strong sense of composition to them. Do you see your compositions before or after you look into the Holga viewfinder?

Usually I do. Because the Holga allows me 12 frames before I have to stop and load up, I tend to be a bit miserly with the frames I shoot. Seldom do I think I shot too much film, rather it ends up that I wish I'd shot more. The nature of the Holga is to fool the user into thinking the viewfinder is the photo. With use I found that I could better predict that might actually be in the frame. StilI, it isn't perfect, nor should it be.

A photographer defines himself through selection and sifting according to their personal instincts. Over time you notice that subject matter finds you--it's a feedback loop. Habit has me favoring form over mood. in order to maximize the composition I'll consider what angle a form shows itself to the greatest effect. Often this results in serveral different shots that work themselves out after the film is developed. On occasion I'll return to a scene under different lighting conditions or to test a new approach. One photo I have attempted several times has me waiting 6 months for the sun to be in a different postiion in the sky.

There are times where I'll have a sense that something may happen within the frame that might be worth having without knowing in advance what it would be. I'll shoot from with the camera held over my head or on the ground. I'll also shoot expecting the unknown. There is a photo I took in Chicago of a guy standing on the street with signs saying the FBI raped his wife. That part I could see and frame. What I couldn't predict was what would emerge from the crowd crossing the street in front of me. That a women wearing clothing with the words 'Juicy Bunny Slope' would pass by at the right instant was happenstance. However, I had set it up to respond to whatever might occur.

Composition is a two edged sword. Photos can be bold or have the life drained of them by being excessively formal. I'm constantly fighting to let the Holga do its thing. It's kind of like being a parent; You know that raising kids requires oversight and restriction. At some point you have to realize that the goal is for them to be free of all that but with some wisdom about how to handle the freedom. Knowing when to get out of the way is difficult. My son complains that I'm overly concerned about being clean. He doesn't yet see the benefits of being organized. I'm still learning about the benefits of being disorganized.




I noticed that you currantly have organized your photos into three separate categories on your website, "Notice | Artifice | Edifice". I know all artists are faced with the question of how to arrange and display their photos to the public. Can you please tell us more about how you came to categorize your images this way and why?

Nice. You've picked up my reference to my son's organizational limitations and applied it to my photography.

When I take a picture I don't tend to think where it will fit in with all the other pictures I make nor am I concerned about it having deeper meaning--the thing itself is enough. But later on I do sort things out and I'll tell you why. Actually I don't have a clue. When I post pictures on my site I can either have one big pile of pictures that or a few piles of like minded pictures. No heavy lifting. I was thinking about labels for these begining with the word ediface. Buildings and things of that sort are what I had in mind. Shortly after I added artiface to include those pictures of things that suggested fantasy or the artificial world. Now that I had two rhyming words I needed a third to account for pictures with words, signs and the ways we communicate directly. After consulting a rhyming dictionary I came up with the word notice–as in posting a notice. Words that share a sound are used to make you think that I was clever enough to have these thoughts from the beginning.

So let's discuss why we organize.

Categorization allows us to understand smaller ideas. For the past couple of years I've shot almost exclusively with the Holga. Perviously I shot extensively with 35mm cameras and a macro lens. In other times I shot with cheap panorama cameras and, as well, I've shot with other 120 film cameras. When you consider the results as a whole it's easy to figure out what goes together in groups. And when you deal with just one of the groups my mind wants to further sort these into categories. Pattern recognition helps sort through competing impluses.

We struggle to explain what what we see. Photographers observe what other photographers do and we see that serious work tends to get high-minded analysis that seems to suggest events outside of the frame. Sometimes this is expressed as social criticism, psychoanalysis or revisiting some historical period of the medium with new eyes. It gets to the point where you begin wondering if any value exists without the aid of art critics. I'm a fan of Garry Winogrand's pictures, but I have no concern for what others think they mean, nor do I believe did he. Winogrand famously said that he took pictures "to see how things would look as photographs". It was a model of plain spoken. The pictures did the speaking and still we struggle to explain.

Words are the tool we use to clarify. Lawyers and legislators need a language that hopes to eliminate uncertainty. In doing so their language needs to be limiting. Words are how we deal with the discomfort of confusion. Because photographs serve different purposes we tend to associate them with their most familiar uses, such as in delivering the news or factual reference. Often captions are needed to further narrow the understanding. Forms of photography that want to present vision without justification has to deal with that tendency.

Author Tom Wolfe writing in The Painted Word; The Bauhaus to Our House claimed that a handful of powerful art critics created careers by concocting theories for the painters they favored. He went on to predict that one day their theories would become the art and the painters would merely serve as illustrators to those ideas.



It's no secret that making a living from creating and selling art isn't easy. I would imagine that most artists are striving to live off money made from the sale of their own creations. Do you approach your creative process differently now that it's for sale?

Although I do make my images available I wouldn't say that I've put serious effort into it. Print sales are hard to come by as most dealers will tell you. Mostly I sell my Holga work as stock photography, modestly through Getty Images, but I've also sold a CD cover from Flickr. When you see big name art photographers pitching their style for advertising assignments you get an inkling where the real money comes from. Selling my services for magazine assignments was quite easy because the magazine needed specific content. Needing decoration comes farther down the list of what's necessary. Most of my friend's have no idea why I do what I do and consequently have no use for it. So I'm pretty realistic about cashing in.

Having said that I still need to put a price on what I'm offering. To help me figure that out I've monitored similar sized work on a range of websites. To help determine if this pricing is working for the photographer I've sent emails. In every case I get no answer--which tells me it their price isn't working. Last year I exchanged emails with the photographer Les Krims. Les' advice, price less. Pretty much what anyone would say when buying anything.

Buyers either have a fondness for the image or they think that particular artist's work will be more valuable in the future. Either way the market resists unreasonable prices.



Like all artists, we make mistakes. What are some lessons that you've learned from your own mistakes and how have they benefited your photography today?

If you were to tell a young photographer one thing that would help them progress, what would that be?

And lastly, do you have any plans or goals for your own photography?

A popular book of the 90s was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I wish I had read it. Habit two is 'begin with the end in mind'. I seem to operate in reverse, 'end with the begining in mind'. I should have paid attention more to what was happening around me. So often we get caught up with the idea that you need to be somewhere else to take pictures. This was brought back to me just this month. My son just graduated from high school. Prior to his going off to the prom I attempted to shoot a couple shots of him with the Holga. He complained of having to put up with the photo thing all his life. Shortly after I was in a Wal-Mart card section where I spotted a card with a photo I had taken years earlier. The photo showed a boy pushing a large boulder up hill. The boy was my son and the card was amazingly a high school graduation card. I gave that card to him with the inscription; "You complained about me constantly taking your picture, here's the evidence." The truth is I didn't take enough photos.

Go for walks with a camera–the photo to distance ratio is quite high. If you don't find anything to shoot in the first 10 minutes become concerned. If after 30 minutes you haven't shot a roll consider selling the camera.

If It's probably best to avoid classes beyond the technical level. Classes are intended to make you change something. Photographers work out these things by constantly seeing, shooting and evaluating the results. Once you've figured out the technical stuff no one can help you anymore.

Never throw out your mistakes. I'm surprised to find out how good I used to be before I got better.

I've never missed a shot by not having a camera. The only shots I miss are the ones I attempt and fail.

Plans and Goals
Right now I'm in the middle of sorting through and boxing up years worth of transparencies from my past assignments that I'm preparing to donate to a university. Lots of early Silicon Valley stuff. This is something I've wanted to do for the last 3 years and have successfully avoided the drudgery until now. After that I plan to get back to printing. I have two different bodies of work I've been makiing slow progress on. In the past I've been half-hearted about doing the gallery thing. On the one hand every artist wants to know if there is a market for their production. On the other hand the pleasure of picture making rests exclusively in making pictures.


Robert's closing statement really hit home with me. At some point we all question our ability to create "good art"... but when you let go of those doubts and create for the "pleasure of picture making", magic seems to happen. Thank you Robert for putting your heart and soul into this interview!

All images Copyright © Robert Holmgren 2005-2011 and reproduced by permission