How did the Holga disappear? First released in 1982, this plastic toy camera won itself a cult following for the technically flawed but dreamy images it produced. By the 2000s, it had become a staple of low-fi film photography. Instead of precision and perfection, photographers embraced the spontaneity and the unpredictable results produced by these toy cameras.
As the Holga’s popularity soared, its inventor, an entrepreneur named Lee Ting-mo, was interviewed far and wide, with features in Der Spiegel and The Wall Street Journal. Here in Hong Kong, local media reported that creative talents like filmmaker Henry Chung carried a Holga with them wherever they went. Many Hong Kong photographers felt a sense of pride in the Holga’s homegrown history, adding an extra layer of significance to works like Simon Wan’s 107 No Man Islands, a 30-metre scroll of Holga prints that was exhibited at City Hall in 2017. The show documented uninhabited islands around Hong Kong, and as Wan explained to journalist Manami Okazaki, he enjoyed the camera’s unpredictability – as well as its low cost. “Even if I dropped the camera into the sea, it wouldn’t have been a problem,” he said.
Not anymore. It is now impossible to buy a new Holga, as its Guangdong factory shut down in 2015. Most of the tooling equipment used to make the camera was scrapped. Lee Ting-mo has retired, and as Holgas have become more scarce—and therefore most expensive on second-hand markets—interest in the camera is drying up. “Honestly it’s not [been] really popular anymore here for a long time,” says Tat Tso, head of Asian operations at Lomography, an Austrian company that distributes toy cameras and stages photo exhibitions at its various locations, including a gallery in Sheung Wan.
The Holga’s rise and fall is a tale of bad timing and missed opportunity – although in a sense, that was camera’s story from the very start. Lee Ting-mo was born in Hong Kong in 1930 and studied railroad engineering at Tsinghua University before returning home. In 1967, he was hired by Japanese camera maker Yashica to oversee production at its Hong Kong factory. Two years later, he struck out on his own, starting a company called Universal Electronics Industries that produced camera flashes. The quality of its products attracted the attention of German company Agfa, which was interested in setting up a Hong Kong factory. They contracted Lee and he began making flash units for them – one of only two companies to do so in Hong Kong. Competitors soon followed, and by the mid-1970s, there were another 30 flash unit companies operating in the city.
Then it all collapsed. In 1975, Konica released the C35 EF, better known as the Pikkari, the world’s first compact 35mm camera with a built-in flash. It quickly wiped out the market for external flash units, and Lee began thinking of ways he could save his company. He came up with an idea for a cheap plastic camera that could be marketed to families in mainland China, which was beginning to open up but had no options for affordable cameras. He named the camera Holga because it sounds like hou2 gwong1 (好光)—“very bright”—and he was proud of the robustness of its built-in flash. The first model, the Holga 120, used medium-format 120mm film, which was readily available in China.
But nobody in China seemed interested in his product. “I didn’t even sell one Holga to the Chinese market!” Lee told journalist Manami Okazaki, who interviewed him in 2014. Unfortunately for Lee, Holga’s release coincided with an influx of 35mm cameras that quickly dominated the Chinese market. To make matters worse, Holga’s cheap construction made it unappealing to anyone who wanted a simple point-and-shoot operation, because it had a tendency to leak light, producing images with heavy vignetting and unpredictable distortions. As Lee focused on shoring up other parts of his business, the Holga remained a novelty.
Its fortunes changed at the turn of the 21st century. Charmed by its imperfections, a handful of professional photographers had taken to using the Holga, including American photojournalist David Burnett. He used the camera to document Al Gore’s 2001 presidential campaign, and a moody shot of the candidate won a prestigious award from the White House News Photographers Association. Perceptions of the Holga shifted overnight. “At first someone said, ‘The pictures are not so good,’” Lee said. But after Burnett, “people said, ‘This camera is very special. It changed suddenly.”
The Holga finally found the success Lee had been looking for when he first designed it. By the end of the 2000s, more than 200,000 units of the camera were being sold every year, and it was available in a wide range of colours, styles and formats. As digital cameras began to dominate photography, the Holga’s simplicity and charming eccentricities won over a generation of photographers. “It changed the way I thought about photos forever,” wrote Sam Byford, an editor at The Verge and a Holga enthusiast. “Shooting with a Holga was always more about travelling than arriving.”
Strangely, the Holga’s popularity may have led to its demise. Byford notes that Instagram’s developers were inspired by the Holga and other toy cameras, which led them to include a suite of whimsical filters with their new app, which was released in 2010. Mobile photography came to occupy much of the same niche as the Holga, and the camera’s fortunes were further complicated by the collapse of photographic film producers. Kodak went bankrupt in 2012, and in much of the world, it was suddenly very hard to find a place to buy or develop film: bad news for a film camera like the Holga. Although Lee tried to launch a digital version of the camera, it never got off the ground. He halted production in 2015.
You could argue his decision was premature. Like vinyl records, film photography is making a comeback, with a resurgence of interest among professionals and hobbyists alike. “Maybe someone will resurrect the Holga’s creaky body and slow plastic lens one day, as has happened with other legendary film cameras like the Lomo LC-A,” wrote Byford. But for now, there is another Hong Kong-made alternative: the Diana. Before the Holga careened along the roller coaster of its rise and fall, it had a predecessor, one that was remarkably similar in its plastic construction, but perhaps even less predictable in its output.
First manufactured by the Great Wall Plastics Factory in Kowloon Bay, it enjoyed some success as a novelty gift in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1960s, but demand had dried up by the 1970s and production ceased. Now surviving Dianas in good condition can sell for hundreds of dollars – a far cry from the US$1 they originally cost. Lomography has even introduced a new version, the Diana F+, that appeals to anyone who would have been interested in a Holga. The brand may be dead, but its spirit lives on.