30 May 2012
|Holga designer Lee Ting-mo with a new “special lens and filter turret” that allows smartphone users to snap digital photographs with analogue effects similar to those created by his original cameras|
Mr Lee says the so-called “toy camera” initially failed to revive Universal Electronics Industries, the Hong Kong company he co-founded. The manufacturer of stand-alone photographic flash units was struggling in the late 1970s to compete with Japanese-made cameras that came with built-in flashes. In 1982, they responded with the Holga.
“Because we had no precision machines, we could not make a high-class camera – only a simple plastic camera,” says Mr Lee. Universal was targeting the Chinese mainland market. But the 120mm-format Holga failed to sell among consumers who had already started snapping up overseas brands that used 35mm film.
Mr Lee says his company was about to shelve the Holga when a group of Austrian photographers got their hands on one. “They introduced our camera to other photographers, then they did exhibitions, and the reaction was the same: they found it very, very special.”
While part of the appeal lies in the use of film instead of digital chips to capture images, most photographers are attracted to the unpredictable nature of a camera in which every part – even the lens – is made of plastic.
journalist Liam Fitzpatrick is a Holga fan who believes the camera's success illustrates how Hong Kong companies can adapt to changing markets
“Then you also have light leakage, as the body of Holga is not particularly secure,” Mr Fitzpatrick says. “So just during normal use, light will leak into the body and onto the film – and kind of play havoc, in many cases, with the result. There is a certain ineffable and ethereal quality that people can’t quite define, but they know it when they see it.”
Quintessentially Hong Kong
While the images resonate with people around the world, Mr Fitzpatrick says that the Holga to him also represents the spirit of Hong Kong.
“It was created at a time of adversity by the Holga company. They needed a product to sell, they rushed the thing out in this very can-do way. Finally the images you get are unexpected. That’s Hong Kong to me, because this is a place where different elements come together and they produce things you really weren’t quite expecting.”
Holga cameras today come in a range of models, including those which capture panoramic images on 35mm film, but all are based on the original plastic and “imperfect” design introduced 30 years ago
An avid Internet user, 82-year-old Mr Lee works with a team of engineers and marketers to develop hardware and software for a new generation of Holga fans. The Holga range now includes various film formats and Holga-effect lenses that can be mounted on mainstream, single-lens reflex cameras. There is even a lens and filter that mounts on the iPhone, which has sold more than 30,000 pieces in the first four months on the market.
“Today there is no more film on the market, so our film cameras will also suffer the same fate,” says Mr Lee. “I must find some way to make our products stay alive.”
Professional photographer David Burnett used a Holga to capture this award-winning image of US presidential candidate Al Gore on the campaign trail in 2000 (photo: Contact Press Images)
”The world is getting smaller thanks to the Internet. We, as a Hong Kong company, can be well-connected overseas through the use of information technology,” says Ms So. “Communication is very important. I believe every opportunity comes from a relationship, so throughout my collaboration with photographers, we build strong relationships, and it’s great to collect the feedback and keep improving our cameras.”