Cheap Shots

Pictures taken by plastic cameras get their artistic due

Act now to see the biggest camera in town.

At 6 feet tall and 9 feet wide, the giant replica Holga camera is probably the largest camera you'll ever see. It works, too.

"At first, it was a fun thing," says Mary Findysz, proprietor of the film lab Photographer Works and director of ArtsEye Gallery, located inside the business' lobby. "But as we went along, we decided to make it into a real camera."

Built to scale by Photographic Works employee J.P. Westenskow, the big black camera—let's call it a sculpture—mimics the popular Holga, king of the cheap plastic-lens cameras. It's so heavy that when it was taken on a photo shoot to Mission San Xavier, it had to go in a horse trailer.

The photos this monster took of the old mission church—white façade against blue sky—are in the gallery, and so is the camera, all part of the fun in ArtsEye's Curious Camera: Third Annual Pinhole and Plastic Camera Competition, which closes at the end of the month.

The gallery received 800 to 1,000 images for the contest, Findysz says, many of them from abroad. Along with the monumental Holga homage, about 75 print photos are exhibited in the gallery; the rest of the entries roll by in a continuous loop on a video monitor.

All of them were shot either with an old-fashioned pinhole camera or a cheap camera with a blurry plastic lens. (The lens in a standard camera is made of glass.)

"This is a throwback to having fun with a simple camera," Findysz says. "It's about the creative vision, not the equipment."

Developed in the 1980s, just as the digital revolution was under way, the Holga journeys backward in time. Just as some young people now favor vintage vinyl over MP3s for their music, some photo junkies are turning their backs on high-res digital in favor of low-tech. The plastic-lens cameras leak light (Findysz includes black tape with every Holga she sells), and they require old-fashioned film.

The rebels retreating from fast-evolving technology don't care. The pictures they get with their pinholes and plastic lenses are often blurry, but they like that. Done right, the photos are dreamlike and seductive.

"It's like playing a violin," Findysz says. "You have to know your instrument."

The Holga's "cheap plastic lens with all of its defects and aberrations captured my imagination," writes photog Andrew Phillips, second-place winner in the contest, in his artist's statement.

His prize-winner, "The Cyclone, Coney Island," is a long horizontal panorama of the rollercoaster, made of eight overlapping images shot on one roll of film. The Alexandria, Va., photographer took the images sequentially as he walked the length of the ride. The rollercoaster's rickety hills are deliberately misaligned in the overlaps. The tracks end abruptly and jut off into the sky, creating what Phillips aptly calls an "otherworldly, disjointed interpretation."

Valerie Galloway, the first-place winner, used a plastic-lens Holga for her dreamy 2011 "Ethereal." The tiny gelatin silver photo, in soft black and white, is a front view of a female nude, bending her arms above her head. The reverse side shows her from the back, in a different pose: Here, she has her hands low, clasped against her buttocks.

She seems like a woman from another time, and the photo is like a remnant of the past, not readily glimpsed. The impression of times past is strengthened by the setting Tucson photog Galloway gave the picture: It's set in wax inside of a glass jar, and sealed with red thread and wax paper.

The gallery came up with an ingenious way to display the mixed-media piece. The jar is set on a wooden platform, and the viewer can use a wooden handle to slowly spin the piece around to see the woman from both sides. The treatment heightens the impression that the work is an artifact of another time—a survivor, perhaps, from an old-fashioned gentleman's curiosity cabinet.

Third-place winner Donna McDermott is also from Tucson. Her double-exposed "Rt. 37, Illinois" is the only one of the three winners to use color. In her picture, shot on a "blue highways" road trip, four ghostly white silos rise up in a farm field; trees crowd the distant horizon. Splashes of odd color tint this dreamscape. A vertical strip of brown falls down the center, and the sky is a fake-looking turquoise tinged with fuchsia. The way the color is layered on, it looks a little like a silkscreen print with inks that have been rolled over the paper.

Give credit to the plastic lens.

McDermott says she had kind of given up on photography when she happened on the first Pinhole and Plastic Camera competition three years ago. The Holga works "re-awaken(ed) my vision," she writes, and now she loves using the camera to create unpredictable "dreamlike" works.

The weird low-tech quality that the artists praise in the plastic lens doesn't mean that they can't push the camera to do new things. McDermott's double-exposure ratchets up the complexity of her piece. Carlos Pacheco, an honorable-mention winner for his "Little Riders," figured out how to make his photos 3-D. To see them, you have to wear those geeky cardboard and acetate glasses that moviegoers used to don. A couple of pairs hang handily from the images.

"Little Riders" has a couple of young kids twirling around on a Tilt-a-Whirl at a carnival; interestingly, like Phillips at Coney Island, Pacheco uses the old-style camera to capture an old-time diversion. But the visual effect is anything but placid. When you put on the glasses, the two kids on the ride seem to be flying right toward you, breaking out of the 2-D photo and zooming out into the gallery space.

None of the photographic winners this year used a pinhole camera, though there were plenty of pinhole entries. (The judges were local photographers Stu Jenks and Teresa Engle Moreno.) Gerald Figal of Nashville won the Curious Camera prize for the design of one of his homemade pinhole cameras, but he also submitted a cityscape photo shot with a different pinhole camera, this one made out of the box his iPhone came in.

The black-and-white image is surprisingly sharp; it etches the lines of a Greek-style public building stretched out on a hill above a river. The skyscrapers of the city are in the background, nudging a sky exploding into streaks of light. All by itself, it cues us neophytes into another contradiction of this dreamy medium: It can carefully record, as well as distort.

The camera Figal used to make this lovely picture presages the gallery's next oddball show. In October, the exhibition will do a 180, leaving behind the humble and simple, and moving into photography's next frontier: Every single picture selected for the show will have been shot with an iPhone, camera (for now) of the future.