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.
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…