One of the bonuses of spending time in Bulgaria for me is the chance for old, interesting, quirky photo finds. That usually means old photos, but also – and especially – old cameras and curious photo equipment you rarely come across these days.
My latest acquisition is this Certo-Phot camera, produced by camera maker Certo in Dresden in what was East Germany. Now, the company itself was founded way back in 1902, but it almost fell apart in the wake of WWII, after which it became state-owned. Its history follows the twists and turns all German technological brands experienced as a result of the war: nationalization, patent restrictions and plundering, activity shifts or even splitting between East and West, which by the way gave us two Agfas for more than 40 years.
This precious medium-format testament to the endurance of the German technological zest was produced from 1958 up until 1962. It is quite simple and well engineered of all-steel, with zone focus, two stops (f8 and f11), two speeds (B and M, meaning “moment”, meaning 1/60), as well as a tripod, flash and cable release sockets.
It is a little misleading to call it a “Holga”. First, Holga was released much later, in the 80s, and second, it doesn’t feature the famous Holga plastic lens but an achromatic meniscus glass 1:8/75mm lens instead, which means less distortions and chromatic aberrations. It also has a double-frame protection, so you can’t really have the accidental or purposeful double exposures associated with toy cameras. And you know my aversion to labeling cameras “toy or “lomo” just for brand-marketing purposes.
So, why participate in this trend at all?
My reason is not trendiness, but exploration of a cultural history.
The whole point of nostalgia is that it props up a past that can’t be reproduced. You can be only nostalgic for something that doesn’t exist anymore. It may be there, yes, but it’s not really a part of life; it’s a piece of the past preserved in a specimen jar, if you excuse my metaphor. And the special nature of photography is that you can’t really exercise it retrospectively. You can’t take pictures of your grandparents when they were little – you can only work with what you have at the present.
Some people solve this problem and get their nostalgia fix by rearranging old objects, characters, images to make them seem alive. Others use techniques and approaches that we associate with that past and explore the present the same way people used to represent it back then.
I choose to use old cameras this way. When I have one in my hand, it is to find through its lens a philosophy of understanding that my parents or grandparents had, only with my own hindsight knowledge and experience. It’s like going back and joining their life with my present perspective, same as going to a different culture trying to gain understanding of it while photographing it with your own perspective. I am looking forward to using this camera during my art residency this summer while working on the theme of legends.
To get back at the subject of “holga”-labeling, there are other German cameras that are often dubbed “the German Holga”, like the Vredeborch Felica, Agfa Click and others. They were produced in what was then West Germany, though, and this takes away part of their nostalgic charm. It’s not really about a plastic body or fixed focus, but the idea os using a cheaply made camera for the masses and repurposing it for an artistic goal. East German cameras fit better this description.