The cheap, plastic camera that captured the imagination of photographers around the world—and inspired Instagram’s dreamy filters—has its humble origins in Hong Kong, where it was created by a factory worker.
Cheap, plastic, and just barely functional, the Holga camera is beloved among photography enthusiasts for its ultra-analogue simplicity.
Rather than producing crisp, sharp exposures, the Holga creates pictures full of distortion, lens flare, faded colors, and vignettes.
They appear, by today’s standards, to be highly flawed. The cameras were so janky that users often cocooned their camera in duct tape or wedged cardboard under the film spool to prevent light from leaking into the box.
But the flaws are exactly why Holga users love it, and why Instagram has replicated the camera’s effects through its filters.
“We tend to connect to flaws, reading them as personality. You bond with your camera.”
“It’s really hard to form an emotional connection with perfection,” says Katherine Oktober Matthews, a Netherlands-based photographer and chief editor of the photography magazine GUP. “We tend to connect to flaws, reading them as personality. You bond with your camera.”
Users lauded the Holga as a tool for creating visual poetry, akin to Impressionist paintings, but the camera’s fan base remained small throughout the 1990s.
Then photojournalists such as David Burnett and Teru Kuwayama started using the Holga, raising its profile dramatically.
At its peak in the late 2000s, plastic boxes with “Holga” written on them were selling at a rate of two million a year.
A camera for the masses
The Holga was conceived in Hong Kong in 1981 by Lee Ting-mo, a camera factory worker. He designed and produced the first model, a medium-format film camera, and all subsequent versions until its demise in 2015.
Lee was working for Japanese camera manufacturer Yashica in 1967, overseeing production at its Hong Kong factory.
Two years later, he established his own company, initially to produce capacitors but eventually moving into flash units.
Lee, who had studied locomotive technology, began earning praise for his WOC 250x flash and received offers to work with foreign companies. The flash units were emblazoned with the Chinese characters “very bright,” pronounced hou gwong 好光 in Cantonese.
Hou gwong eventually became Holga.
Business was good for Lee. In the early 1970s, there was only one other company making external flash units in Hong Kong, Lee recalls. By the end of the decade, there were over 30.
But the Japanese camera maker Konica put a sudden end to that growth when it released the Pikkari, a camera with a built-in flash, which other manufacturers then copied.
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By the 1980s, many flash-unit factories in Hong Kong had closed. Lee struggled to keep his company afloat. He laid off workers and focused on selling flash units to professional studios.
While trying to come up with a new product, Lee noticed that the Chinese market was beginning to open up and figured consumers would be looking for foreign products. He decided to develop an affordable camera for the masses.
“In China, there were only a few factories making cameras, but they were really big companies and belonged to the government,” Lee recalls. “Their equipment was very good—I think most of it was imported from Russia. They produced cameras at a very high price and small quantities. Only national companies had the money to buy them.”
This led to the development of the Holga 120, a camera that would be accessible to everyone.
Lee surmised it would be a hit in China, where 120 film—which produces square images in a higher resolution and with more detail than those produced by more common 35mm film—was popular.
But he didn’t sell a single Holga to the Chinese market. Instead, he ended up selling most of his cameras overseas.
“They didn’t want 120!” Lee says with animated vigor. “They wanted 135. I was very confused.”
Having already produced a batch of 120-format cameras, Lee tried to interest buyers in Europe, Japan, and the United States.
Some saw value in the Holga as a teaching tool because of its simple construction. Lee sent one to Lomography, an Austrian company that specializes in the distribution of toy cameras such as the Diana, another Hong Kong product.
Overseas sales remained modest until American photojournalist David Burnett used a Holga to photograph presidential candidate Al Gore.
The dramatic monochrome shot won him the 2001 White House News Photographers Association’s Eyes of History contest.
The prize was a turning point for Holga, which until then was seen as a toy rather than a serious tool for professional photographers.
“After that, people said, ‘This camera is very special,’” Lee recalls. “It changed suddenly.”
People began to appreciate the Holga’s limitations and saw them as a creative challenge.
Teru Kuwayama, a New York-based photojournalist who uses Holgas to shoot in war zones and during humanitarian crises because of their light weight, says more magazine editors are specifically requesting Holga images from him.
“The Holga is a knife.”
“As an analogy, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, I lived among some very proficient fighters and hunters of different military forces,” Kuwayama says. “They all used a vast spectrum of tools, ranging from laser-guided missiles to automatic rifles, extremely sophisticated and powerful pieces of gear, but every single one of them also carried a knife.”
The Holga, Kuwayama says, is a knife.
“We develop systems of incredible complexity and efficiency, and the most advanced equipment tends to become obsolete the most rapidly,” he says. “It’s the most basic tools that endure. That’s how I think of the Holga.”
Thanks to the powerful work of Kuwayama and others, the Holga found a degree of popularity. Lee ended up producing more than 100 models, some with a built-in flash, some with cute designs, and some with gel filters. He experimented with colors and formats, but every model retained the fundamental feature: the plastic lens.
End of an era
In 2015, Holga closed its factory. Sales had been falling steadily, as film cameras gave way to digital SLRs and finally, smartphones.
Before its demise, Lee tried to experiment with new products, such as plastic filters for smartphone cameras and Holga lenses for digital SLRs, but it was increasingly difficult to keep up. He decided to retire.
But he kept the equipment for the 120-format camera, he says, “as a souvenir.”
Now, film is experiencing a renaissance, as a younger generation is rediscovering all things analogue, including vinyl records and cassette tapes.
Although Lee has retired, others have taken up the mantle of continuing the Holga name.
One company, China-based Sunrise, bought the rights to the brand and began making the 120N model again with Holga emblazoned at the top.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.
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