Ahead of its Exhibition in Soho: The Origin of the Holga Camera


It is ironic, considering today’s technological advancements, that sharing faded photos with saturated colors, known as vignetting in technical photography term, has become something of a trend–browse through your Facebook or Twitter feed and you’re bound to come across a photo that’s been altered to look like a vintage, low-fidelity photo taken in the 70s.

Most of these photos achieve its looks through iPhone filter apps such as Instagram or Lomography. But others are taken by this cheap ($15-$30), plastic camera named the Holga. Much like an audiophile’s claims that vinyl sound better than digital music, there’s a group of photography enthusiasts who insist these clunky, toy-like cameras capture superior photos.

Ten of these photographers will put their photos on display tomorrow at the Soho Photo gallery in an exhibition titled “Holga Inspire: An Exhibit of 10 Holga Masters”. The ten include big names like David Burnett, an award-winning photojournalist who’ve used his Holga camera to snap pictures of everyone from Al Gore to NATO committee members, and war photographer Teru Kuwayama.

Despite having a cult following worldwide, the inventor of the Holga, a Hong Kong man by the name of Ting-mo Lee, is still amazed his camera is still relevant today.

“I was just looking to make a quick buck at the time,” he said.

The year was 1979 and Lee and his Hong Kong-based company, Universal Electronics, which manufactured stand-alone flash guns for cameras, was in dire straits: A Japanese company named Konica had just released the world’s first camera with built-in flash, which meant Lee’s products would soon be made redundant.

“I had to come up with something,” Lee recalled. “It was a matter of survival.”

Lee didn’t have the resources nor the ambitions to tackle the powerhouse Japanese manufacturers, so he designed a camera with flash, using the cheapest materials possible. Made entirely of plastic with a clunky shutter, the camera looked, and feeled, like a toy.

The now iconic vignetting of the images was not intentional. It was the result of cheap materials and a flash that was a bit too strong (the name Holga, is a play on the Chinese words Ho Gwong, meaning “very bright”), resulting in light leaking towards the edges of the film.

In Hong Kong, the design flaw was intially a death blow, as the cameras sold very poorly, to the point that Lee considered ending the line. But sometime in the early 80s, the camera made its way to a group of analog photography enthusiasts in Austria.

“Ironically, they found the vignetting effect to be artistic,” Lee said. “The camera picked up in popularity overseas and the orders started flowing in.”

Today, the 81-year-old Lee remains a low key figure, preferring to operate out of the same factory in the industrial district of Hong Kong while relegating the marketing of Holga to a globetrotting, young team of marketers and photography lovers.

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