What’s a Holga?
Thomas Michael Alleman captures post-9/11 despair with $17 plastic camera
University Art Gallery400 W First St.
Chico, CA 95929-0820
The son of a Detroit traveling salesman and a ceramic artist, Los Angeles-based photographer Thomas Michael Alleman seems to have creativity and wanderlust in his bones. The 53-year-old spoke by phone recently from L.A., where he has lived for the past 23 years, about his photographic globetrotting (he recently returned from Inner Mongolia) as well as his current Sunshine & Noir show at Chico State’s University Art Gallery.
“I started using it a couple of days after Sept. 11, 2001,” Alleman said of the $17 Chinese-made Holga toy camera he used for the striking, moody, sometimes grainy black-and-white shots of L.A. scenes that populate the Sunshine & Noir exhibit.
Before 9/11, Alleman was kept busy as a freelancer doing location portraits for major national magazines. His work has appeared in Time, People, Sunset, National Geographic Traveler and more.
“On Sept. 11, our interests—the world’s interests—shifted unblinkingly toward ground zero for the next three or four months,” he said. “After 9/11, suddenly [magazines] did not care about lit portraits of surfers or politicians in New York. … Nobody wanted a lit portrait of a poet in Santa Barbara in October 2001.”
His livelihood quickly withered to nothing.
Alleman was unemployed for four months, but during that time he started walking the streets and “many strange neighborhoods” of L.A. with his Holga, and “with a certain intent.
“Like everyone else, I was heartbroken, horrified and alienated [by 9/11]. My sense of how the world worked was very disturbed.”
He walked day after day, all day long with his Holga, shooting pictures of skyscrapers, billboards, taxis, traffic jams and other typical L.A. scenes, as well as more offbeat ones, such as pictures of a discarded broken umbrella and people’s shadows on the pavement. “That $17 plastic camera with a plastic lens” with a focus that “comes and goes” turned out to be the perfect vehicle to translate his despair into art that reflected his feelings at the time.
“I took photographs of my grief on the street corners of L.A. with a very bad camera, and this is why the pictures look the way they do,” Alleman said.
He had tried producing urban-landscape photos before, but wasn’t that successful. “I had used a variety of cameras over several years, and the photos never looked like I wanted, no matter what camera I used.” Those more expensive cameras, he said, were “too good, and the details of what I captured were too good.”
Photos taken with the Holga—his camera of choice these days—possess a “certain kind of fucked-up-ness, a dreaminess, details rendered haphazardly, a disturbed look—that’s what I was after.”
As it turns out, Alleman’s current show—which will be part of a nearly completed book-length collection of L.A. photos called Sunshine & Noir—“simply by accident ends up being a 10-year retrospective. I’ve spent exactly 10 years with that camera.”
Alleman is also about two-thirds of the way done with a photo book about New York (“I’ve been going there since 2002”), and is at work on other book-length projects on San Francisco, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.
And there’s a book of photos of Inner Mongolia “in the very, very dead of winter” in the works as well. Alleman was invited to participate in a photography festival there last December, and he stayed through the holidays: “I was there for New Year’s. It was 20 below zero every day I was there. I’m happy to say I was able to go out every day for an hour or six hours and shoot.”