Photo Book Review: Holga by Michael Kenna

Kenna holgaThe Holga is a “toy” camera, originally made in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. It uses 120 medium format film, making photos at 6 x 4.5 cm or 6 x 6 cm. It’s a crappy camera, and is widely appreciated for its form of shabby chic. With the high quality of digital photography these days, using a Holga and it’s low-fi lens, is a rejection of perfection.

If there’s one photographer whose photos exhibit perfection it’s Michael Kenna. His often long-exposure landscapes have an aura of stillness and mystery, but they are compositionally perfect. (See my review of his book France.)

But Kenna keeps a Holga camera with him alongside his Hasselblads (film, not digital). In the introduction to this book, he is quoted as saying, “I’ve always considered the make and format of a camera to be ultimately low on the priority scale when it comes to making pictures.” He often shoots a few photos with the Holga while working with his Hasselblads, and in this book, you can see some subjects that will be familiar if you have seen his other work.

The Holga is the brutalist camera. It’s poor-quality lens suffers from vignetting, soft focus, and everything else that photographers prize. To quote the much-repeated mantra of photographer David DuChemin, “Gear is good, but vision is better.” This new book by Michael Kenna is the best justification I have seen of that sentence. (, Amazon UK)

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The book contains about 150 black and white photos, with the typical silver-gelatin look of Kenna’s other work. The low-fi nature of the photos is immediately evident, especially the vignetting, but you quickly move past that and focus on the composition of these photos. None of them are complex; Kenna seems to take more immediately apparent photos with the Holga than some of his broader landscapes, and most subjects are centered in the square frame. Some are quick snapshots catching birds in flight, planes, or views from a train. Others are more carefully composed shots such as this one of the Kussharo Lake Tree, that he shot many times over a period of years.

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Many of the photos are almost reductive in their simplicity, but don’t fall into the trap of the “minimalist” black and white photography that is prevalent these days.

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Some are powerfully resonant, such as this Old Boat Ramp, shot in France, which could be a shot from Tarkovsky’s film Stalker.

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And others are quirky, such as this sheep shot in Georgia.

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This book features many of the same types of subjects that Kenna is known for: lone trees, statues, posts in water, but there are some animals, and even a baby elephant, but no people. Kenna’s world is stark, and could be that of a time when all humans have disappeared. Or perhaps it’s the vision of what a world without humans might look like. With the subtle aberrations of the Holga camera, Michael Kenna shows a world that is beautiful in its imperfections.

Note that Holga is available now in the UK (and some other countries), but won’t be released in the US until February. (, Amazon UK)