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Loving the Imperfections of Toy Cameras

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Loving the Imperfections of Toy Cameras

Art & Design

Loving the Imperfections of Toy Cameras

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In the age of high-tech photography, there's a growing community of photographers using what they call toy cameras. These are cheap, plastic devices mostly made in the '60s and '70s with names like the Holga, the Diana-F and the Lomo Action Sampler. There's even a magazine devoted to these cameras called Light Leaks, which celebrates their biggest flaw, the fact that light often leaks through the plastic casing onto the film. We asked photographer Theresa Manzaneras how she started using toy cameras.

Ms. THERESA MANZANERAS (Photographer): The first plastic camera I came across was a 35mm camera called a Lomo Action Sampler. It's sort of this little junky, plastic, candy-colored camera. And it was during this time, when I was really feeling blocked and frustrated with my 35mm photography--and I had been doing it for a while and gotten pretty good at it. But somehow getting to this sort of stage of technical perfection--it just--somehow it wasn't satisfying. I don't know what it was. It was like I wasn't having fun anymore.

OK. So this is the Diana, and I love the sounds of these. This is one of the biggest problems with digital photography, I think--is that you don't get this lovely sound that it makes. Wait. Watch. Check this out.

(Soundbite of clicking)

Ms. MANZANERAS: See? It's very satisfying. It's like closure. It says, `I took that picture.' And the winding knob...

(Soundbite of winding)

Ms. MANZANERAS: ...you can see that it's, you know, basically just a plastic back on top of a plastic body. Anywhere that it's not light-tight, light will get in there and expose your film while you're shooting pictures. I've been lucky, I guess, in that the light leaks, especially from my Diana-F, are just so incredibly, serendipitously beautiful that I can't part with them. And I actually even know where it's coming from and why it's happening, and I just can't bear to fix it (laughs).

The first time that, you know, I came back with negatives after using this camera and I took a look at them and I--because I am trained in the other way of thinking, which is light leak's bad, I brought it home and I was really expecting the worst. And I scanned in the pictures, and I realized that not only did the light leaks not bother me; they added to the image. That light had somehow serendipitously just ended up in exactly the right place. And I never would have thought to put it there if I had gotten a perfect picture or a technically perfect picture, but there it was. It was in a spot that somehow--it transformed what might have been an ordinary yet nice image into something that looked kind of magic.

The one picture that I can remember really seeing this on is a picture I took at a flea market, which was a--it's kind of an African mask, and it was laying on the ground on a tarp. And I took this picture, and it was basically, you know, this asphalt with a line on it 'cause it was a parking lot--the line there and the tarp and this mask--Right?--with these other masks around it, which was interesting enough to me. But the light leaks added into it. It came out--they came out of the mask, and they looked like--I don't know. It was like the asphalt is somehow transformed into skin texture, and, you know, the light leak is this radiation coming out of the mask's head. And instead of looking like a mask sitting on the asphalt, it looks like--I don't know--the sun god (laughs). And I just--I don't know--I was completely addicted after that.

I've had people say to me about pictures they've seen of mine, `Well, you know, you could fix that light leak in a photo shop,' which you could. But that would be kind of--to me, that really goes against the reason why I use it in the first place.

ELLIOTT: Photographer and artist Theresa Manzaneras lives in Washington, DC. To see her photos, go to our Web site at npr.org.

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