Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Michelle Bates: Plastic Fantastic

Human bunny slippers at the Burning Man festival. Human bunny slippers at the Burning Man festival.
© Michelle Bates

A Seattle photographer embraces imperfection and pushes the limits of her beloved $30 Holga camera.

For many photographers, their first experience with a camera is with a cheap point-and-shoot, such as an old Kodak Instamatic or a Polaroid. Once hooked, the photographer usually moves on to newer, more advanced models with greater capabilities. For others, however, first impressions are often lasting ones.

Such is the case for Seattle photographer Michelle Bates. For nearly two decades, she has held a soft spot in her heart for her first camera: a $30 Holga. While she also uses today's advanced DSLRs for images that require more precision, Bates has continued using the Holga, embracing the format's many flaws and limitations.

Mass-produced in China since the early 1980s, the Holga is a study in simplicity: fixed 60mm plastic lens; spring-loaded, nonadjustable shutter; medium-format 120 film; rugged aesthetic. The camera was made to take quick family portraits for the Chinese proletariat but was given new life by Western fine-art photographers who liked the soft-focus, low-fidelity look of its prints and the random light-leak effects from imperfections in the plastic body.

"It's hard to explain," Bates says of her continued admiration for the Holga. "I just fell in love with the look. My artistic vision kind of grew up with it."

In 1991, Bates was given a fortuitous graduation present: two months of instruction at the Maine Photographic Workshops (now Maine Media Workshops). There, she was given a Holga to experiment with and practice her composition skills. "At the time, I was new to photography and had no other style yet," she recalls. "I went from zero experience to sitting next to legendary photographers."

Bates created her own negative carrier, using cut-out cardboard, to include the entire negative in her prints. This gives the images the telltale darkening and blurring toward the edges and corners, adding a subtle impressionistic feel to the final prints.

Her subjects tend to be performance-based, such as parades and arts festivals — from Burning Man in the Nevada desert to Seattle's Moisture Festival. "I like weirdness in the theater world, those who create their own works of art," she says.

Bates has focused on darker themes as well. In one of her more recent photo series, she shot images of faded, abandoned carnival and parade figures baking in the hot summer sun on a field in Israel. "I have an appreciation for transformation and destruction," she says.

Despite her fondness for little "plastic cameras," Bates has also embraced the digital age. "I'm a Nikon girl," she says, currently favoring the D300. When she's not shooting, she also gives lectures on photography and teaches various workshops at Seattle's Photographic Center Northwest, Newspace Photo in Portland, Ore., the Maine Media Workshops (where she first got her start in the business) and many other places.

Her 2006 book on working with the Holga, called "Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity," will be released in a second edition by this summer or early fall, she says.

To see more of Bates' work and learn more about the unique challenges of shooting with the Holga, visit michellebates.net.

Randy Woods
Story Author: Randy Woods

Randy Woods, editor of PhotoMedia, has been in the magazine publishing world for more than 20 years, covering such varied topics as photography, insurance, business startups, environmental issues and newspaper publishing. He is also associate editor for iSixSigma magazine and writes a job—search blog for The Seattle Times called “Hire Ground.”

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