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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

Feeding the Beast, Feeding Ourselves

Spring arrived a bit late this year in the Berkshires. Haven’t lived here long enough to gauge whether such a delay is connection to global weather changes or if belated seasonal change is simply natural in western Massachusetts.

Either way, while dumping buckets of aged horse shit into the fields recently behind the barn, it caused to ponder about farmers I’ve had the honor to meet and photograph over the years.

Farmer John, dropping buckets of manure in the fields next to the studio, located in barn on Dancing Fields Organic Farm. Photograph by Richard Stanmeyer

It also reminded to get this years crop in the ground soonest or else loose more time trying to feed this beast called a blog — albeit an enjoyable beast to wrestle on a near weekly basis.

I’ve spend much time with famers across this amazing spinning ball we all call home, however some farmers really stood out, leaving an impression residing deep each time I eat a meal.

Living literally in the middle of a ricefield for five years in Bali, nearly all my neighbors were farmers. Each morning, next door neighbor, Bapak Made, would head out to plant, inspect, harvest or just enjoy a romp through his fields.

My neighbor, Bapak Made, heading through the terraces to his ricefield located behind our old home in Bali.

On one occasion for the book, Island of the Spirits, I wandered through the terraces with Bapak Made to attend a ceremony at a small temple in his field called a Pura Ulun Siwi, erected and placed in its specific location for one equally specific reason — for giving thanks towards a bountiful harvest and giving respect to the god of earth.

Bapak Made preparing to pray as be decorates his Pura Ulun Siwi or water temple in his ricefield.

Such moments always gave cause to rethink how fragile we are regarding the ability to feed ourselves, especially in a time when many young children in cities haven’t a clue what a tomato is or that french fries are actually potatoes.

Take a moment and watch this except of chef Jamie Oliver as he asks a classroom of 1st grade students what the name is of red veggies he was holding:

Alarming, isn’t it.

I met Jason Hinson while working on the End of Plenty story for National Geographic. He’s one of those fellas you immediately connect with. A true salt of the earth type. Felt as if I’d known him my whole life yet at the time had simply wandered over to his John Deere combine and asked if I could ride with him while he harvested thousands of ears of corn. For the record, Jason’s Deere could eat my 3320 Deere like an olive.

He was working the fields in Kingston, Iowa.

Jason Hinson, a fourth generation farmer, drives his combine as he harvests over 100 acres of corn.

Working insanely long hours, Jason Hinson with his amazingly massive combine harvesting corn. That Deere can move.

Jason was kind enough to let this giddy wannabe farmer pilot his mammoth Deere. It was astonishingly simple to drive with control and speed like a Mercedes Benz. No wonder these machines cost more than an average house.

This wannabe farmer, harvesting corn with Hinson's combine which felt more like piloting a spaceship deftly through a Milkyway of ears. Photograph by Jason Hinson

Life as a farmer anywhere on earth is never unchallenging. It had been a difficult year in 2008 for Midwestern farmers. Many had lost their crop when the Mississippi River overflowed it’s banks due to unusually heavy rains further north.

All this area of Oakville, Iowa, tens of thousands of acres of corn and wheat grew until a levy broke, sending the Mighty Mississippi River across farmland and ruing lives. 1.3 million acres of grain was lost, sending feed and food prices across the globe through the roof. It also didn't help that a surge in biofuels was also taking place about the same time — when food is used as fuel, the effect on prices can be staggering.

This use to be the road leading to their house and farm, but in 2008, Brian, Cindy and Colt Wiegand had to use a boat while surveying the damage to their crops, barn and home.

Seems farmers in America are equally affected by climate change as they are in Bangladesh or the plains of northern Kenya where the exact opposite plays out but with deadly consequences.


Low crop yields in developing nations are a primary cause of world hunger, and low crop yields are connected to severe weather pattern change taking effect across the planet, especially in the Horn of Africa.

Dust storm caused by severe drought in 2008 hits Mabaalea village, a remote Afari encampment located in Teru district in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia.

When camels die from thirst and lack of food, one can only imagine the effects on the human population.

I met Momina Mohammed, 34, while she was trying to nurse her 8 month old son, Ali Mohammed. He was suffering from severely acute malnourished in an Eritrean refugee camp in Suola near the Eritrean border in northeastern Ethiopia. Momina hadn't been able to eat properly for months, causing her breast milk to stop. It didn't help that she too was malnourished, unable to afford the global rising costs of food. Before heading back to Addis Ababa, I wandered all over a nearby market hoping to find baby formula. Amazingly, I found two tins. Momina was very pleased but unfortunately I have no idea about the fate of Ali once leaving.

Spending a few days with Jason and his friend, Chad Kuntz, was a reminder of how dependent our entire food supply is to so few who actually still work the land.

In the United States, less than 1% of the population are farmers.

Farmer Chad Kuntz with one of his three daughters while harvesting corn in Oakville, Iowa.

Not that long ago, we were all farmers. Few complained about the long hours and hard work. Such labor had it’s rewards — survival.

These days we naturally want more.

For the last few decades — along with the foreseeable future to come —  our entire existence relies on the hardworking hands of Jason, Made, Chad and a dwindling number of others who understand the brilliance of planting a seed, reaping the benefits of something we often can take for granted.

I recognize that not everyone can be a farmer. It’s physically impossible as well as impractical. Even for our family, less than one acre of organic vegitables and 30 hens for organic eggs is a labor, though fortunately a labor of love.

Francesca, 3, with a new baby chick bring the Stanmeyer brew to over 30 on the farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. By the way, the eggs are astonishing from these lovely ladies. Just ask my friend and VII colleague, Franco Pagetti, who cooks an amazing Pagetti-style omelet whenever he visits. May, 2011

One difficulty we’re facing is not the lack of open land in say, New York City, to grow food for the entire population of the greatest city on earth. The problem…where there is land to grow, so few in developed nations are willing to work it.

While driving around Mississippi two weeks ago,  I was listening to a story on NPR about foreign workers. A Georgia farmer could not find locals in his town who would be willing to work the harvest season. Even at $200 per day (or around $25 per hour, three times more than working at a fast food joint), the only ones willing to work were migrants who are desperate for a job in order to feed their own families back home. Astonishing yet understandable when Xbox’es and 300+ television channels are so conveniently gobbling up our time and minds.

An even greater obstacle to overcome in order to be able to feed the human population; Changing how we use of land which is already being farmed.

Too much is now being diverted to biofuels, taking good soil and land away from our bellies and into the tanks of our automobiles.


Steam belches out from a furnace while trucks carrying corn for processing into ethanol arrive and trains wait to leave with liquid ethanol from the POET Biorefining plant in Gowrie, Iowa.

The Amazon Rainforest is being clearcut to make way for even more farmland in order to grow soybeans for the global rising demand in meat.

Deforestation in the upper Mato Grosso state of the Amazon west of Juara city where farmers are burning ancient rainforests to make way for more farmland to raise cattle and soybeans.

None of this tractor-pondering is revolutionary. Nor is there just one single factor related to significant problems we’re facing.

However it is monumental when you consider that the present way we use our arable land is simply not going to yield enough food unless we radically change the way we work the land, getting more engaged in regards to how our food is grown and ease up on food waste — one-third or 1.3 billion tons of food goes wasted each year.

In a few weeks time our population will reach 7 billion.

By 2050, 9 billion.

How will we feed ourselves?

Having feed The Beast, next to feed the chickens and water the garden in hopes to feed the family with a simple but needed harvest in the months to come.




NOTE: To read some fascinating insight about our food supply, the environment and a host of other related illumination, read Dennis Dimick’s blog, Signs from Earth.

June 2, 2011   4 Comments

Why Choose a Holga? Part II – The Tortoise

Extremely fast moving — Young Bali Aga men use sharply thorned pandan leaves to fight each other during the Perang Pandan ritual in Tenganan Village. Thrashing one another until severely bleeding, the participants do this to show their respect to Dewa Indra (god of war).

A rangerfinder is a lapdog, always faithful, a stalwart.

A digital SLR is a rabbit, blisteringly fast, hard worker.

A Holga is a land tortoise, staggeringly slow, a meditative beast.

If there was a contemporary symbol added in Chinese astrology — reminding us to slow down in these gigabyte blasting, hard drive stuffing days — it should be a giant land turtle.

When choosing a Holga for the book, Island of the Spirits, it was deliberate act in order to delve into a mindset of not only looking back in time from the perspective of the present, the decision also was to slow things down.

Here’s why: A 64 GB flash card equals roughly 60+ rolls of 35 mm or 180+ fills of 120 mm film into space smaller than a cracker.

In some ways such a massive table to work on is liberating…near limitless photography where batteries will need changing before ever considering the need to change film.

Troublesome in other ways — one can end up producing far too much food to choose from on that table, allowing the weakness of being human to consume more tasteless excess than needed, hindering the mystery and depth found in patients to see (often time sooner) the more flavorful dishes buried amongst the excess. Decelerating also avoids the hours spent in a hotel room working off the gorging from a day’s visual consumption.

Even worse…a lack of moderation can lead to never finding your visual voice.

The protracted pace of the Holga forces you slow down simply by its idiosyncrasies, which can be welcoming*.

Slowing down to a turtles pace while photographing a multitude of ceremonies in Bali had its ying but also a weighted yang;

How to photograph certain spiritual events which at times moved quickly while using a camera that moves film as if dancing tango with your partner in heavy mud?

Cremation ceremonies can last all day, sometimes at a glacial pace. Other times, briskly.

Thousands descend upon sacred water sources during Melasti (cleansing) ceremonies, with many entering rapidly into dramatic states of trance.

Melasti ceremonies start slow but once worshipers enter into a state of trance, it can be like photographing a sprinters.

How to solve the frame past number 12 with a camera that can take 2-4 minutes just to change film?

Solution: Five Holga’s and one assistant, deftly changing rolls of 120 film, turning the tortoise and all it’s pensive but laborious wisdom into a zen-like animal of fluid photographic efficiency.

Five varying models of Holga's were used to create the photographs of the Island of the Spirits.

Throughout the five years it took to photograph Island of the Sprits there were two truly wonderful friends who assisted in making this book actually happen. Bli Wayan Tilik and Bli Yudhistira Dharma, better known in the Indonesian photographic community as JP.

Wayan and/or JP came with me to each and every wedding, cremation, tooth filing, land blessing, spiritual event for the book. Neither of them had ever used a Holga let alone worked with 120 film before.

Appreciating the light leak effects which the Holga naturally creates, I was more interested in deciding the outcome of photographs, not have the camera create the feel of each image with random acts of fogging. To do so, it was imperative to ensure the porous shell of each Holga was completely sealed with electrical tape. There was also deft skill needed to make sure the often loosely spooled rolls of film was somehow tightly sealed before opening the camera back. It required all sorts of beguiling objects taped or glued to the exposed film area inside the camera — FYI, earlier Holga’s didn’t come with the small pieces of foam in present models.

To achieve success also meant finding shade, which is challenging when photographing in a geographic location 8 degrees below the equator.

In the beginning we had hit and miss results but over time JP and Wayan quickly learned techniques and tricks to sustain a fairly consistent level of unfogged film.

Often times looking like an overly decorated Christmas tree, it was this ability to always have 2-3 pre-loaded cameras around my neck (or at least in reach) which helped achieve a fluid flow of photography when events called for nonstop photography.

Photographing a gamelan orchestra using three Holga's while also making a binaural recording of the music with microphones placed in each ear. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S. Bintoro

By no means can one move massive amount of film with a Holga as can be done with a DSLR or even a rangefinder film camera. It defeats it’s purpose. But there were days during truly astonishing event filled ceremonies where we’d get back to the studio and realize there were 20-25 rolls of film in the film bag…and for a Holga, that’s seemed staggering — a whopping 240-300 photographs.

Photographing, slowly, the bathing ritual during a cremation ceremony in Ubud. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S. Bintoro

When photographing with the Holga, I often times made field recordings. The rituals were of course stunning to witness but the audible essence of Balinese spirituality and culture was equally hypnotizing. Here’s a short binaural recording of gamelan performed by a 30-piece orchestra during a cremation in Ubud, Bali:

[wpaudio url=” at a Cremation Ceremony.mp3″ text=”Gamelan at a Cremation Ceremony” dl=”0″]
(iPhone and iPad)

While changing film and totting 1-2 extra camera bodies, JP or Wayan would also carry the Fostex and an Audio Technica microphone, recording ambience from the periphery, while I had binaural microphones in my ears connected to an Edirol, freeing the hands to work the camera while recording truly three dimensional sound.

JP making field recordings with the Fostex and Audio-Technica microphone while I photograph with a Holga during a cremation ceremony in Ubud. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S Bintoro

Wayan Tilik making an audio recording of musicians performing gamelan music after a barong blessing in central Bali.

Once back in studio, the slow pace of the Holga didn’t stop. There was processing of film, cataloging, archiving, toning, audio archiving and a whole host of other tasks ahead, often requiring similar patients and wisdom found when using the Holga in the field. 

Part III of Why Choose a Holga (on post production and how working with a Holga influenced my other photography) in about two weeks time. For now, the plane is landing in Baltimore and a steward is about to go postal if not shutting down.




To view some of Lukman Bintoro’s photography, visit his blog.

Reminder: I’ll be teaching a 9-day workshop in Bali between August 11-19, 2011. If you’re interested in taking your photography further, being guided through in-depth storytelling and seeking more insight into working with a Holga, this is a workshop not to miss. Visit the workshops section for registration and more details. Hope to see you then.


* For an average National Geographic story, it’s not unusual for me to produce (when working over the course of 8-10 weeks) 25,000 or more photographs. That’s an average of round 360 photographs a day or only 10 rolls of 36 exposure film…which truly makes the Holga a tortoise compared to the hare.


May 19, 2011   4 Comments

Why Choose a Holga?

Royal Cremation Ceremony, Ubud, Bali 2004

A few weeks ago, an interesting question was asked on Facebook, inspiring this discussion connected to the book, Island of the Spirits.

Doug Thacker wrote:

“John, would you care to discuss in detail, here or elsewhere, the process of choosing the Holga for this work; and how using this camera changed your work habits?”

Suppose one takes initial impulses for granted at times, in this case the choice between a Holga over a conventional 35mm or 6×6 camera. To be honest, I never recall thinking much about the decision. It was a deliberative choice right at the onset of this five year project: I wanted to present a body of work on a very unique and ancient culture, allowing the viewer to have one foot rooted in centuries of unchanged religious and cultural practices, while having the other foot firmly planted in the present.

The Holga — a stellar and very powerful camera — allowed me to do just that.

Doug’s request (along with Tobie’s similar request from Taiwan) made me recall something which might illustrate this decision a bit clearer, or even open up a fascinating debate.

Digging through the archive the other day, I came upon a frame taken with a digital Canon camera from the exact ceremony and nearly exact angle of one of the photographs in the book, taken with film on a Holga.

Thanks to digital metadata details — which I rarely look at — this ceremony happened on March 29, 2006.

It was the day before Nyepi (the day of silence) when melasti or cleansing ceremony happening all across the island. In the village were I use to live, Banjar Tandeg, the local temple was literally a two minute walk from our home and an all day ceremony was reaching a climax. At this lovely temple — my neighbors praying and worshiping, some in trance, stabbing themselves with kris’s, incense whirling while the gamelan orchestra clanged to an intense rhythm  — there was line of priest deep in prayer. One of the priests use to work for us. We called him Made Mystic because he was security guard by day, a priest and shaman at all other times.

I recall clearly the moment both of these photographs were taken…the light was falling fast. According to the metadata of the digital image (below, right), it was 655pm and already was pushing the film for the Holga two stops, the available light simply not enough for the fixed f8 lens of this rangefinder. Working the low light as long as I could — even at times using a Holga body with a clipped shutter spring to work in bulb mode (before Holga’s came with a bulb setting) — I asked my friend and assistant, Wayan Tilik, to hand me the Canon camera…the setting was so peaceful and rich in layered warm light.

The end result in color is fine and meaningful in it’s own right — rich golden yellow umbrellas, neutral whites, hints of dark reds in the temples bricks mirroring almost the tonal hues of the women on the far right dress and Made Mystics sarong hanging from his waste. But it just didn’t present the historicity of events occurring across Bali…a society deeply connected to centuries of unchanged traditions, holding (somehow) onto those roots during the present bombardment of development and modernity sweeping across the island. It color felt too simple. Too straightforward. Too expectant.

Holga on left, Canon 1DS Mark II on right

There have been countless color coffee-table books made about Bali. Very few (other than a fascinating book titled Bali Sacred & Secret by Gill Marais) made me feel or understand the enormity existing all around me. Color photography presented the weight and measure of Balinese society in too simple of a form. Yes, it had meaning and purpose as a visual message, however I wanted to create a document, a testimonial reference, able to remind the Balinese just how astonishing their culture actually is, especially at a time where dramatic changes are taking place across the island, effecting traditions or which one day might erode culture.

My assistant, Wayan, would help me edit hundreds of rolls of film taken with the Holga. Often times he would come up to me say “Bli” (brother in Balinese), “I never realized how beautiful and special my culture really is until seeing these photos.”

At that moment I knew I’d done my job.

Wayan Tilik carrying a Holga at a ceremony held
at his families home in Tabanan. No clue why
Wayan’s standing on a chair

There are other reasons for choosing the Holga. It’s a rangefinder, not a toy camera. It’s very meditative to work with rangefinders, composing, working slower and actually seeing the photograph you’re taking. The natural fingerprint of the Holga shares space with dreams and poetry.

Next posting on this topic I’ll touch on how or if using the Holga changed my work habits as well as some insights into how I actually work with Holgas, usually 4-5 bodies at one time, while juggling audio, even video.

Feel free to present additional questions to topic and I’ll expand upon this theme if there’s interest.


May 2, 2011   7 Comments