Sunday, February 22, 2009

Toy Cameras; A Personal History

Victor, circa 1990
copyright Gordon Stettinius

Prompted by a question found at Four Corners Dark, a blog by photographer Nic Nichols, essentially asking how it is a person might come to embrace the nature of toy camera photography.

So, here, I reminisce...

The year was 1990 and I was a mere pup, still wet behind the gear. Back then, I spent most of my days, skipping innocently around, making photos of cacti or stoner friends or reflected light and shadows that felt, to me, like poetry, which I would then accompany – of course! - with mindblowing poetry. Very questionable mindblowing poetry. These were my salad days… living in Tucson, a geographic misanthrope of a town in which I landed bright eyed and by accident. A town with a history of lawlessness, desperate characters, a place danced upon by shimmering visions riding upon throat clenching heat and dust and spelled by the fleeting relief of monsoons and mescal, a place of high desert and mountains and dealers and thieves and siestas and All Souls and cultural renegades… at the foot of the black hill, a dormant volcano… But the place was then, and remains, a very generous homeland to photographers. A beautiful place really. There has always been there a healthy subpopulation of imagemakers, and many institutions and galleries of the town still genuflect before the silver altar of fixed imagery.

My gear, then, in the year of my random relocation, consisted of a Nikon FM2 with a couple of lenses and an old Rolleiflex TLR I had bought the year before in San Francisco, from a time when I had been busy kicking the training wheels off my liberal ideology. I still have and use these cameras today but I was newly open to any kind of suggestions because I very much enjoyed mixed media work – painting, drawing, printmaking - and wasn’t really averse to new experiences. As Vonnegut said, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” And road trips and photography were my church so to speak.

The actual moment of my discovering toy camera photography was a fairly prosaic one. I saw a hand written flyer, made a phone call, met a man on the north side of town who claimed to be holding and we made the exchange beneath a purple sky in a Circle K parking lot. It was a small cardboard package, plastic wrapped goods, smelling slightly of laudanum and black earth. Cost me ten dollars. A dime bag. And it was highly addictive. A Holga. I have probably purchased 200 or more of these since that first night, so many cameras I have used myself or have given out to students and friends… the first one is usually free just to give them a taste. But I know that a black passion will infect most of them… and that they in turn will spread the word about a good buzz… and I am twisted up inside with pleasure at the thought.

The Holga immediately required a great deal of attention. I found that I wanted to use it daily. I tried other cameras around this time as well. Somehow, something had been cut loose inside of me and if something like the Holga could be out there, then there might be other cameras, better cameras even, out there and waiting to be used, waiting to lend their own distorted ripple upon the waters of recorded imagery. I tried a few of the bakelite Brownies and they tasted pretty good and mushed up my reality for days at a time. A friend of mine was pushing homemade pinhole cameras pretty hard about then and this too had a nice drunken pictorial undertone… I was quick to try anything really. But the Holga was the first toy, cheap, easy camera that had any real sustained effect. I was loaned a Diana, soon after, by a friend and there was a camera that also had a kick, a soft and subtle claret note… this one, I knew, would be an interesting fix.

Finding a Diana of my own was going to be a trick though. They were not common, there was not yet an internet or ebay or any big box corporate markup refab retail store. I had to deal with another somewhat shady character to get my first one but Mr. Bubbles was good for several others after that. Bubbles ran an antique outfit on Congress called Used Cars. Mostly this guy would troll the southwest looking for neon signage to resell to the Japanese for extraordinary profit. But he was a photographer in his own right and tended to pick up all the photographic whatnot he encountered as he traveled around in his pickup plus trailer. One day, I was hanging out in the shop, surrounded by missile casings and bumper cars and gramophones and all manner of disheveled temporal castoffs talking up my ten dollar Holga while making a portrait of Victor, Bubbles’ real name, when he broke out with a box of recent acquisitions to see if I might have any interest. And there it was. A Diana. I had only just learned of the camera a few weeks earlier. Five dollars was all he asked for the first one and probably thought he was screwing me pretty. Once Victor realized I would buy any Diana or knock off he could find, he marked them up pretty quickly. But the damage was done and I had a small stable of about six or so Dianas, a couple of Holgas plus my old gear. I was using pretty much all the time by then.

Ironically, when I managed a trip back east to see my family later that year… I discovered in my parent’s upstairs closet… a minty Windsor clone. My parents were users! It was a pretty delicious moment for me. Grounding even, to realize that my own subversive tendencies came from somewhere else. I am free to blame my parents for fuck sakes! And that is pretty much the american dream I sometimes think. And so, that very Windsor became the lead camera for a while, at least until I melted it in a regrettable Volkswagen camper episode. And then others took its place.

And now, almost twenty years later, life goes on but I still thrill to see all these new converts to the old siren song and it warms my black plastic heart to see it. It is funny, really, that the experiments with other photo substances continue for me but the hook of the cheap stuff still appeals.


Gordon S.


Another friend of Nancy R.


Eye Caramba


Gringo Starr