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Why Choose a Holga? Part III – Film to Book

A woman is in trance during a Melasti ceremony at the Pura Tanah Lot, a 15th-century temple and one of Bali’s holiest sites situated just off the coast of Tabanan. This unique ceremony is held to purify and make sacred the Pralinggan Ida Betara, or god temple shrine, carried from its sister temple in Tambawaras.


Finding solace — and time to feed the beast — continues to occur in the air, this time heading across the Pacific in seat 25C.

No better way to proceed with Part III of Why Choose a Holga? then doing so while flying to a country we once called home and were the book, Island of the Spirits, was created.


Just the name, Indonesia, conjures images of mystery, enchantment, suspense and magic.

On many levels, Indonesia had a profound effect for me and my family. For instance, if we hadn’t chosen to name our daughter Francesca Merapi (Merapi, being the name of a mystical Central Javanese volcano), we might have chosen Francesca Indonesia Stanmeyer.

No joke.

The word Holga also illicit’s a sense of enchantment, mystery, magic and indeed suspense…suspense because you never fully know what will be exposed on the negatives it produces.

Digital cameras took away the mystery — and at times, suspense — of photography. The pensive wait for hours or days thereafter for the film to be developed has been replaced with instant gratification at a press of the button.

Film and a Holga simply does not work that way, taking you back in time (not that long ago) when thought and patients reigned.

A high priest, or Ratu Pedanda, is held by her followers during a ceremony in Ubud. When such a holy person prays, he or she is called a living Siwa and is believed to deliver direct messages or requests from the gods. That is why the revered person is held and does not touch the ground.


Living five years in Bali had many ups, but also downs.

Bali is an overwhelmingly beautiful place to live, raising a family amongst some of the most kindest people in one of the richest cultures on earth.

The down sides often resided in the reality that for a working photographer, there simply wasn’t the infrastructure on the island to handle professional photographic needs.

Forget non-reliant electricity, obscenely expensive satellite Internet fees, the numerous hassles from corrupt customs officials who would want to shake me down for money at the airport because I had more than one camera whenever arriving home (yes, I was a registered journalist and a legal resident…and a sign, clearly written in both Bahasa Indonesia and English, resided on the wall in the customs interrogation room which read “TWO recording devices are allowed to be brought into Indonesia…”), or if you needed specific equipment, it would have to wait until making a future trip to Singapore, Hong Kong or New York.

The greedy customs agents are easy to sort — just let them get bored with your kindness and smiles, after an hour they give up knowing they are wrong. Can’t blame them, they are underpaid and have families to feed.

The most complicated to sort was finding a lab which could properly develop 120mm film.

Knowing years before moving full-time to Bali that films like 120 Tri-X simply did not exist on the island, the choice was predetermined:

Kodak CN400.

Accepting that the grain pattern was tight, lacking the feel and sublet nuance of it’s more mature cousin, Tri-X, it was the ability to develop using C-41 (color chemical processing) which cemented the decision.

More so, it was relatively easy to find in Indonesia.

Seems simple, right?

Not really.

Here is how it was accomplished in what took five years to photograph and a few more years thereafter in post production.

A giant ogoh-ogoh is paraded at night through the village of Tibubeneng in Canggu on the eve of Nyepi, or the Balinese Day of Silence. The primary purpose of creating ogoh-ogohs is the purification of the natural environment of any spiritual pollutants emitted from the activities of living beings, especially humans.


During Indonesia’s historically weighted Reformasi era, I’d tried many labs in Jakarta for E-6 processing (jeez, remember E6?? It’s not that long ago) but only one lab stood out, Standard Foto.

One day I called Farida, the wonderful women who owns/runs Standard Foto, and discovered she does professional processing of 120 C-41 film. This was a near godsend because the only place found in Bali that could do 120mm film was a dusty hole-in-the-wall shop located in the dreadful tourist area of Kuta in Denpasar — they scratched a test roll of film more than the Holga naturally does.

To get film to Jakarta, we’d wait until 3 or more rolls were needing processing, then express mail the rolls to Farida.

She knew I was demanding, requesting that only she process the film. No one else.

It was also imperative that the film was not cut into strips — the Holga is a manual film advancing camera with a nowhere near precise hand-winding knob. This means space between frames are often close together or even touching. The decision where to cut was mine and no one else’s.

Then came the next hurdle; How to ship back to Bali meter-long, uncut strips, of fragile film?

Farida devised a system…she would sleeve the uncut film in plastic, hand spin each roll, placing the rolled film into two 35mm film canisters — one canister on the bottom, one on the top — taking tape to seal the two touching canister seams so that each roll of 120 film became virtually indestructible to damage in it’s mini missile container.

Farida also knew I was giddy to see the processed film, often times turning around 20 or more rolls in one day, returning the film back to the studio in Bali the next day…and ever so kindly not charging express processing fees. Big hugs for that, Farida.

The studio in Bali, build as a one room house but used entirely for photography.

Yudhistira Dharma, aka, JP, working in the studio.

Whenever Tiki-Jne (Indonesia’s domestic express courier) came knocking on the garden gate, it was a time for near juvenile excitement; We were soon about to see what we now take for granted whenever pressing a preview button on the back of a digital camera — the mystery of photography.

Ripping open the package as if it were Christmas, we would go into the temperature controlled film room — with extreme humidity in Bali, we had to build literally an entire room in the studio that was completely sealed and humidity/temperature controlled. We’d put on gloves, turn on the lightbox and begin opening Farida’s deftly sealed plastic film canisters.

At times it was a near religious experience — there is nothing more recessed in tradition and thought provoking than looking at film. And there is nothing more mysterious and beguiling then looping a roll of film created on a Holga to see what actually was exposed.

Editing rolls of Holga film with Wayan Tilik that had just arrived from Standard Foto in the film room of the studio. Not concerned about theft, more so, fire, hence the large safes which kept film and HD's from potential ruin. If you look closely near the center/bottom of the photograph, you'll see the Farida designed way of protecting 120mm uncut film using two 35mm plastic film canisters. Photograph Courtesy of Lukman Bintoro


Because of my concern to have no one else cut film, we had to devise a simple but meaningful way to go from a negative to a positive. We needed contact sheets. The solution: Flatbed scanner.

After cutting, Wayan or JP would dive with enchantment into the process of creating digital contact sheets, beginning the first step of an involving dance of going from film to book and exhibition ready images.


Step I

Digital contact sheets – Each roll would be scanned at around 30 mega each, given a special code (example: holga-melasti-001, holga-melasti-002, holga-melasti-003, etc), then placed in archival envelopes with matching digital contact sheet code.


Step II

Basic toning – Raw (untoned) digital contact sheets would need basic toning, sometimes toning individual frames on each contact sheet due the limited exposure controls on a Holga — Sun or Cloud.


Step III

First Edit – It was said by a photographer (her or his name escapes the mind) that showing contact sheets is like showing someone your underwear.

Ok, here is my underwear:

First edits made on a digital contact sheet from barong ceremony located in Baturiti, Bali.

Only one edit made on a digital contact sheet from a Perang Pandan ritual in Tenganan Village.

Using dots, I would make a broad but meaningful first edit. These edits would be called in the analogue as world work prints, but in this digital realm, they became work scans. All contact sheets were scanned as 30+ meg TIFFs, allowing for full-screen viewing on a 30-inch Apple monitor of each individual frame.


Step IV

Organizing – Every edited digital contact sheet was then imported into Aperture, Apple’s professional digital imaging program. Aperture is by far the best for not only toning both digital camera files and digital film scans, Aperture is the most intuitive organizing program, allowing you to work in a humanizing way, as if categorizing analogue film in the film room. In addition to contact sheets, all work scans were imported to begin the next step, toning of work scans. Here is an example of what contact sheets look like when organized using Aperture:

543 digital contact sheets, some edited, others not, residing in Aperture. Due to inherent spacing issues when advancing film in a Holga, some contact sheets could not be cut into typical strips of three. Some had to be cut into strips of two or even one negative frame, creating at times an A, B and C contact sheet for an individual roll of film. This is why all cutting of film had to be done in Bali, not at the lab in Jakarta or by anyone else other then myself.

Step V

Work Scans – JP or Wayan would then take each edits negative, scanning one by one on a flatbed scanner, using a mask to make sure perfect full-frame (including the natural black border of the film) scans were created. These scans were made as 30 meg TIFFs. The work scans then received a special coding, matching them with their respected roll of film. Example: holga-melasti-002-04 (meaning, roll 0002 of a melasti ceremony, frame number 4).


Step VI

Work scans needed toning. These would become the photographs which the final book edit was derive from. Well over 600 A, B and “what the #*$- is this?” edits, were toned and organized in Aperture.

When I first starting using Aperture (version 1.5 days), some photographers considered it a slow running program. Sure, we all want everything fast but those who complained missed the boat — anything digital in version 1.whatever is no different then complaining that your child, a prodigy violin player, isn’t immediately performing like Itzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall. Speed aside, Aperture blew me away with its powerful toning controls for black and white film scans. More so, Aperture works in a way that mirrored my process in a wet darkroom.

Aperture version 3 is now lightening fast and nearing a Miles Davis level of brilliance.

Second Edit – Once the work scans were toned, the next task was to edit over 600 images down to a visual narrative. Using staring, color labels, Smart Albums and whatnot in Aperture, the multi-year body of work grew into shape and form on the screen, bringing a large loose edit into a storytelling 100+ image tighter edit.

Final A edit, toned and organized in Aperture. Notice the multiple albums, projects and whatnot on the left. The ability to quickly and efficiently make various albums helped in bringing the edit down to 106.


Work Prints – Being more in-tuned with three dimensions than two, I find it nearly impossible to fully determine a selection without making final decisions from prints. One long weekend, we printed 106 photographs on A4 paper.


Step IX

Final Edit – Lisa Botos, the former editor of Time Magazine in Hong Kong, was the editor for the Island of the Spirits book. We had worked together for over ten-years on countless stories. Lisa’s not only a dear friend and one of best photo editors I’ve ever worked with, she’s won nearly ever editing award possible during her tenure at Time. Lisa flew to Bali from her new home in Singapore. Awaiting her in the garden off the studio were all the prints, hanging on a makeshift clothesline around a large poinsettia tree we called Jack. Sipping wine and watching the kids run around the garden, we brought the 106 photographs down to 56, which would become the final edit for the Island of the Spirits.

My son's Konstantin and Richard, running around the garden off the studio amongst A4 size work prints. It's from these 106 prints that we made the final 56 image edit for the book, Island of the Spirits. August 17, 2007

Step X

Drum Scans – The final 56 photographs next needed to be turned into master digital files. Scans off a $300 flatbed scanner are fine for work scans, but it’s nowhere near good enough to use for a book or massive exhibition prints. Lans Brahmantyo, owner of R&W books (who published Island of the Spirits), had a drum scanner in his Jakarta office. Out of fear of having original negatives lost if using a shipping company, Wayan flew to Jakarta and hand delivered the original negatives for drum scanning. 200 megabyte, 16 bit, RGB scans were made of the initial 106 image edit, just in case of wanting to swap out an edits during the final layouts of the book.


Step XI

Dust and Scratches – Probably the most complicated, involving and time consuming task in the entire process of making the book was to clean dust and scratches that eight different Holga bodies imbedded across nearly every negative. 200 megabyte Heidelberg drum scans are ruthless, showing even the tiniest of tiny specs of dust. It took six months of nearly every day work to take the 106 images and remove the dust/scratches. We then made two versions of each master drum scan — an untouched original scan (with all the dust and scratches) and a second matching with was dust/scratch free, left untoned.


Step XII

Final Toning – The last step — though there never really is a last anything until the book comes off the press and the prints for the exhibition are all printed — was to tone the drum scans. It was in Aperture were the magic of being in a darkroom was nearly resurrected, working fluidly upon each image, reaching a proper, naturally toned quality. This final toning process took another six months.

A final toned image from a Melasti ceremony.

Step XIII through Infinity

The Book – In Part IV of Why Choose a Holga?, we’ll go into the process of why I chose to go with a Indonesian based publisher, working on design and layout, the nightmare of discovering that over a years worth of image prep was almost for naught and the fascinating processes of supervising the actual printing process of the book.

Till then, the plane, one of four that it took to get from Texas to Indonesia, is about to land. The second half of the National Geographic story, code named, The White Horse, is about to begin. It was a raging stallion to ride in the Pacific Northwest a few weeks back. It will likely continue to be an unbroken beast here in Southeast Asia.

Even with the visual challenges, I’d rather be nowhere else than in this magnificent land called Indonesia.



To Purchase Island of the Spirits

Regular Edition

Island of the Spirits by John Stanmeyer Foreword by anthropologist Wade Davis • Introduction by Anastasia Stanmeyer

Regular edition signed copies of Island of the Spirits are available worldwide through the Island of the Spirits website and unsigned through

In Indonesia, Island of the Spirits is available at all Periplus and Gramedia bookstores and the Ganesha bookstore in Ubud.


Limited Edition

Island of the Spirits is available in a Limited Edition of 150. The books cover is wrapped in grey woven material with a positive image on a full-frame piece of film replicating the original exposed 6x6 Holga negative. The numbered book is placed in a handmade box also covered in gray fabric material. A signed print on archival watercolor paper is included.

Limited Edition copies of Island of the Spirits are only available through the Island of the Spirits website.

In Indonesia, Limited Edition copies are only available from R&W.

August 7, 2011   9 Comments