These days kids get cell phones. But back in the day, when you turned 7 or 8 and your parents thought you were appropriately responsible, they would buy you a toy camera. Usually, it was a simple plastic box, rugged enough to be dropped numerous times or tossed among the cookie crumbs and cracker wrappers in the back seat of a car. We didn’t know that one day, these cheapie cameras would become oh-so-cool and cult-hip — hip enough to inspire toy camera festivals.
But that is exactly what has happened, since, as it turns out, these little plastic boxes produce quirky, unique, one-of-a-kind photos unimaginable in the quick cold precision of a digital universe. Beginning this week, the creative range of the idiosyncratic toy camera is being celebrated at the Somerville Toy Camera Festival taking place in three galleries in Somerville --- Brickbottom, the Nave and Washington Street galleries --- throughout the month of September. (The festival concludes Sept. 30 at the Nave and Washington Street, but continues at Brickbottom through Oct. 13.)
The festival, an annual fixture since 2013, attracts photographers from across the country and from around the world, and is a celebration of all the beautiful accidents and happy glitches that are routine when you’re shooting with 120 mm or 35 mm film. (“Film is not dead!” declares Susan Berstler, director of the Nave Gallery who first conceived of the festival six years ago.) Here, light leaks, double exposures, blurry, distorted and over-saturated images are embraced and revered for their suggestive effects and emotive qualities. Decades ago, these same sorts of images might have been purged in disgust from the film roll. Not these days. Even expired film, once dreaded by photographers because of the possibility of unpredictable color swings, is now prized among the toy camera set.
“What people are attracted to is the very opposite of your really high-end digital SLR [single lens reflex] where you shoot it on automatic and you take 47 shots in five seconds that all look the same,” says Berstler. “You don't really ever get the same shot twice with a toy camera. If you took a picture with a toy camera and you really loved the way it turned out, you could spend the rest of your life trying to do the exact same thing and you would never quite get it that way.”
In contrast, Berstler says, she clicks through image after image of digital photos on Instagram where every shot of an iconic spot like Harvard Square looks pretty much the same as the next.
But not here. What's on display is 127 photos from 70 artists offering the kind of eccentricity and offbeat originality that can sometimes happen when we cede control just a little. This year, New Orleans-based fine art photographer Jennifer Shaw served as juror.
“It was a treat to view so many different approaches to the toy camera aesthetic,” she says.
Shaw sifted through more than 300 entries from seven countries and 20 U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia. Entrants ranged from art school students experimenting with the popular Holga camera for the first time, to well-known professional photographers who normally work in digital but who choose to blow off steam in their off hours behind the lens of a toy camera. For them, Berstler says, "It's a way to relax and kind of have a more playful approach to image taking."
Each year, a number of accepted submissions come from abroad. This year, work from photographers from Canada, Spain and Israel is on display. More international photographers are submitting now that the festival enjoys a growing buzz, placing it right alongside New York’s Krappy Kamera festival.
An old hand by now, Berstler says she can often immediately recognize a photographer just by his or her style.
"When I look at some of the submissions, I can often tell who the photographers are because there's a very striking eye," says Berstler. "That's a lot harder to do this day and age with digital photography."
In fact, notes Lee Kilpatrick, director of the Washington Street gallery and organizer of the festival along with Berstler and Bonnie Borthwick, of Brickbottom, many of the filter effects found on Instagram are actually based on the sort of flubs that happen only with toy cameras.
“Due to their sometimes erratic construction, no two Dianas or Holgas are alike,” he says.
And so, neither are the kinds of pictures they produce.
This year, Kilpatrick says he noted a wider range and diversity in the work, in terms of both subjects and styles.
On display at Brickbottom is Jean-Baptiste Morand’s “What a Circus.” It is a photo of a circus tent with its mirror image in lush reds and blues and is reminiscent in its coloring and subject matter of a 19-century French exhibition poster. Morand is from Joliette in Quebec, Canada and shot the photograph using a Diana camera at 400 speed and 35 mm film.
Or there’s Alison Church’s "Shadow," also on exhibit at Brickbottom (and shown atop this post). Her photo features an enigmatic shadow in a stretch of empty beach in which people in beach chairs and towels populate the periphery of the frame. What is the subject of this snapshot? It takes a minute to recognize the shadow as a plane but the recognition of the subject does not alter the photo’s moody nostalgia. It was shot with a Sprocket Rocket camera using 200 speed 35 mm film.
The work runs the gamut but many of the photos have a certain quality — either wistful and nostalgic or unsettled and scary, like film stills from a horror movie. Sometimes, a photo has both qualities at once. This is what toy cameras seem to do best.
As she sifted through these images, Shaw says she chose photos that evoked an emotion.
“Does the image move me?” Shaw asks. “Does it elicit a physical response — make me laugh, smile, lean closer, draw in my breath, widen my eyes in wonder — or fear? In short, does it make me feel something?”
The exhibition alone is not the sum total of the festival. There will be workshops, panel discussions and a darkroom day. This year, the festival has grown beyond the bounds of Somerville. Shaw herself will show work at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester during the run of the festival. A portfolio review for toy camera aficionados will also take place at the Photographic Resource Center in Cambridge.
“It's just a little more interesting to me than just shooting with a digital camera,” says Berstler.
It's also a lot more expensive than digital, since you have to buy film, but that's the price you pay for toying around with great art.
The Somerville Toy Camera Festival is being held at Brickbottom Gallery, the Nave Gallery and at the Washington Street gallery. Exhibition dates at Brickbottom are Sept. 6 to Oct. 13, with an opening reception Saturday, Sept. 8 from 5 to 7 p.m. The Washington Street exhibit runs from Sept. 8 to 30, with an opening reception on Saturday, Sept. 8 from 7 to 9 p.m. The Nave exhibit also runs from Sept. 8 to 30, with an opening reception on Sunday, Sept. 9, from 3 to 5 p.m. Jurist Jennifer Shaw will speak about her work at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester on Sept. 16, from 4 to 5:30 p.m.