Upon Achieving the Toy Camera Trifecta: What Now?

“Hanging Tree: Commandment,” shot with a Holga camera, was selected for the 2018 Somerville Toy Camera Festival at the Brickbottom Gallery in Boston.

“Hanging Tree: Commandment,” shot with a Holga camera, was selected for the 2018 Somerville Toy Camera Festival at the Brickbottom Gallery in Boston.

By CB Adams, Qwerky Studio, a Language and Light Incubator

“Dream Deferred” is arguably Langston Hughes most famous poem. In it, he begins by asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” and concludes with, “Or does it explode?” I have lately turned that poem upside down, wondering what happens when a dream is not deferred – delayed maybe, but finally achieved?

That’s because during the toy camera photography “season” that bridged 2018 and 2019, I had work chosen for all three of the top gallery shows dedicated to this lo-fi artform: Somerville Toy Camera Festival, Krappy Kamera and Plastic Fantastic. I would have loved to humble brag about being included in Rayko’s Annual International Juried Plastic Camera Show, but, alas, that show is now defunct as far as I know (plus, it would have ruined the alliteration of my clever Toy Camera Trifecta).

That Trifecta title is my own, and represents my 15-year journey into, through, and around the sub-sub-sub-genre of toy camera photography – the sometimes maligned, often ignored practice of creating the best possible images from the lowest quality lenses, or no lenses at all. Toy camera photography is a peculiar pursuit and yet it exerts a powerful pull on my imagination. In a photo world of repeatable quality and pixel perfection, toy cameras are the Forrest Gump of photography: you never know what you’re gonna get.

I embrace that unpredictability. I am inspired by it. I am driven by it. I am haunted by it.

I first encountered the toy camera photography world sitting in a shabby cubicle with a shitty company-provided desktop computer in Greenville, Texas. I was a consultant then, working on a month-long project for a client. We were given some down time one day, told we had to stay on premises in an airless, secured area but, since there wasn’t much for the team of consultants to do, we were free to putz around on the internet.

“Hanging Tree: Jack Ketch’s Shame,”shot with a Holga, was included in Soho Photo Gallery’s Krappy Kamera exhibition in New York City in 2019.

“Hanging Tree: Jack Ketch’s Shame,”shot with a Holga, was included in Soho Photo Gallery’s Krappy Kamera exhibition in New York City in 2019.

I don’t know how I found her, but I encountered some photos of a graveyard in New York City, taken by Holly Northrop, who worked at the Village Voice at the time. Those pictures grabbed me. I wanted more. And, I found them, including a trove of images made with something called a Holga, a camera unknown to me.

I was off to the races. From Northrop, I found the work of Michelle Bates and some dude in Kentucky who went by (and still does) the moniker Tread. These artists were followed thereafter by the likes of Jim Rohan, Jennifer Shaw, Warren Harold, and Nancy Rexroth. Unlike that quip from Harpo Marx about refusing “to join any club that would have me as a member,” I wanted in this club. I could “do” this club. But, from the start, I was unsure the Toy Camera Club would have me.

I bought a Holga 120N. I sent it to be “modded” by a guy who had a business called Holgamods. I devoured Bates’ book, Toying with Creativity, now in its second printing. I purchased 120 film, a format new to me, ‘cause I had always been a 35mm Nikon F2 Photomic sort of practitioner. I reentered photography after a 20-year hiatus from taking anything but family snapshots and party pics.

In the same way an alcoholic remembers that first drink, I remember opening the cheap box that held this cheap camera. I had done my research, but in reality, as I held that Holga for the first time, I could not envision how I could make the photographic art that I so admired by others. Driving home that doubt was all the fine work I found in the issues of the now-defunct Light Leaks magazine (oh, how I miss that publication!).

And I began to shoot. And shoot. And shoot. I traveled with my Holga to exotic locales where I worked as a consultant, places like Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Manhattan, Kansas, and I shot close to home. I had some early success. In fact, an image from one of the first rolls I ever shot with a Holga (maybe even the first) was chosen by none other than Michelle Bates for a show called “Unrefined Light: Images by Plastic Cameras and their Friends” at The Foundry Art Centre, located several blocks from my own home. My image shared a wall with two from my unknowing mentor Tread. Four other toy images were chosen for the “The Holga Show” at the Saans Gallery in Salt Lake City.

This early success was followed by several years of photographic desert-like hell. I submitted. I paid entry fees. I peddled my toy camera wares to any call for entry that seemed appropriate. I found no takers, except for a show at the Columbia (Missouri) Art League, which accepted an image I had made with a “frankencamera,” inspired by Jim Rohan, who had shared his design for modifying a German Isoly 120 camera with the flipped lens from a Holga. And the Somerville Toy Camera Festival included an image, too.

Those small successes were barely enough, but I kept shooting. I kept buying film. I kept paying labs, such as Richard Photo Lab and The Darkroom to develop and scan my film. I knew I was fortunate to have the means to pursue this expensive and seemingly quixotic endeavor.  Slowly, steadily, I began to have a body of toy camera work, though I was loath to allow myself to think of it as such.

Fast forward to last year. Somerville chose two of my prints, followed by Soho Photo Gallery’s Krappy Kamera, which accepted two prints (after a dozen years of submitting, on and off), and then Plastic Fantastic, which also chose two. In a strange sort of symmetry, the Krappy Kamera juror was Michelle Bates (who didn’t remember me from the “Unrefined Light” show those many years ago), and Plastic Fantastic, at Lightbox Gallery, chose a photograph I took while attending the Krappy Kamera opening earlier in the year.

And, though not part of my Toy Camera Trifecta, I am also proud to have had toy camera photographs accepted by some other galleries, including Art Saint Louis and the Saint Louis Artists’ Guild, during this period.

I wasn’t owed this success after so many years of trying, but I do feel a certain sort of vindication that my doggedness and dedication to this arcane form of photography has paid off. Yet, this is not a drop-the-mic moment. If anything, it is a challenge to not only make more work, but to make even better work, especially now that I have my own wet darkroom, a decent film scanner, and Lightroom software.

A dream achieve, for certain…until the next call for entry.

Oh, and by the way, with two photographs accepted into the 2019 Somerville Festival, I’m on my way to a Toy Camera Trifecta repeat. Or, perhaps after that, I’ll chase the Trifecta of Toy Camera Trifectas…

This year, “Prescription,” shot with a Holga, was included in the Plastic Fantastic exhibition at Lightbox Gallery in Astoria, Oregon. This photograph was shot in New York City while I was attending the opening of the Krappy Kamera exhibition.

This year, “Prescription,” shot with a Holga, was included in the Plastic Fantastic exhibition at Lightbox Gallery in Astoria, Oregon. This photograph was shot in New York City while I was attending the opening of the Krappy Kamera exhibition.

When Good Enough Has To Be Good Enough

At the intersection of being a photographer and a father who photographs lies a shot like this.

When shooting a portrait, a photographer faces multiple challenges in terms of the craft of making a photo. When you add the challenges of shooting family in general and an unwilling subject in particular, things get interesting. When you add some additional elements such as a malfunctioning camera (in this case, a fussy Russian Kiev 88 and a film back that scratched the film the entire length of the right side of all frames) and poor lighting (in this case, slow shutter speed and wide-open aperture), things can get really interesting.

What happens when all of the above challenges converge? Well, I got this photo. There is much wrong with this shot, but it’s still a memory and moment that I cherish, despite the imperfections (not the least of which is a slight focus issue). And one of only two salvageable shots from the roll.

It may not be professional. It may not be great. Hell, it’s probably not even good. But it’s still a keeper. Warts and all. And, truth be told, I love the bokeh.


The Clarity and Charity of Time

I am not a patient person in general and definitely not a patient photographer. This is often at odds with the analogue, film-based photography that I practice. You might think that digital would be my thing, given my impatience. But no. I have to shoot old school and then practically run to the nearest darkroom.

Like Popeye, I am what I am. Yet, I am now involved in the long process of inputting, organizing and otherwise getting my photographic shit together while enjoying my new, custom-built computer, dedicated to my photo workflow. This means I have been viewing some long-forgotten scans. It’s been, well…eye-opening. It’s like I’m seeing some of this work with new eyes. And perhaps I am.

As I revisit this old work, new images now attract my attention. I still like most of the ones that originally got my juices going, but I’m finding some gems (to me, anyway) that have just as much merit and potential. I feel like a musician who is reinterpreting an old song. I’m thinking of my favorite version of Springsteen’s Born To Run; a very slow live version, not the album version. This is also like the advice that I received (and I still pass on to my writing students) about putting your piece of writing away in a drawer and then coming back days or weeks or even months — and it’s like you’re looking at something someone else wrote. Perhaps they (you) did.

This image is a case in point. I was shooting a light-leaky Agfa Isolette camera. Most of the 15 frames are shit. But a few from this sequence spark my imagination. This was lit with 100% golden-hour sunlight right in my own backyard. I think it has a David Lynchian quality.

Maybe I was channeling Lynch’s eye.

Monochrome Pentimento by CB Adams, Qwerky Photography.

Monochrome Pentimento by CB Adams, Qwerky Photography.

I Ain't No Chimp

OK. We know that there's a term called “chimping” that describes the habit of taking a picture and then immediately going, “Oh, oh, oh,” like a chimp, while reviewing it on the camera’s LCD screen. I shoot some digital myself, but I don't ooo or ahhh, but I do get that kind of chimp face when reviewing a shot I just took. Can't seem to stop that habit.

On the other hand, there's no opportunity to chimp with a film camera. That's one of the aspects I love about shooting film. Delayed gratification -- that's good for most things except sex. Anyway, I knew this shot would be a keeper as I took it. Call it intuition. Call it 40+ years of experience. Call it luck or karma. But it felt good and right and exciting.

Anyone seen my banana?