Camera crapola

Camera/Arts’ Crappy Camera Show celebrates Sacramento’s best worst photos

Camera/Arts gallery and store co-owners Marquita Alcartado (left) and Ginny Giles (right) with her dog, Mo.

Camera/Arts gallery and store co-owners Marquita Alcartado (left) and Ginny Giles (right) with her dog, Mo.

SN&R Photo By Nicholas Miller

Ginny Giles’ first crappy camera was the Diana model, a plastic-bodied piece originally produced in Hong Kong in the 1960s. The Diana creates low-contrast, occasionally blurry images with pronounced vignetting, or emphasis on the picture’s center. All wrong, by certain standards—but just right for when it’s cold and rainy and foggy, Giles says, in the same way certain music seems just perfect for wintry moods.

After the Diana, other crappy cameras hit the market—the Kodak Instamatic, the Holga, various Lomo models, Polaroids—and photographers began embracing crappiness as a creative tool: Whether it’s a toy, a throwaway or just really low-tech, volatile imprecision is part of the charm. Nowadays, even professionals like to leave their thousand-dollar SLR digitals at home and get arty on those $5 eBay finds.

For Giles, who co-owns the Camera/Arts photo store and gallery in East Sacramento, it’s about time for a Crappy Camera Show. So she invited shutterbugs from all over town to submit grabs taken on plastic, toy or low-res digital cameras (even cell phones) for public display. There’d be no snapping away without worry and doctoring images later in Photoshop. It’s about being stuck with what you’ve got—sometimes something wonderful, sometimes, well, crap.

Giles sat down with SN&R to discuss her own experience over the years with various cameras, crappy and otherwise.

When did you seriously begin using crappy cameras?

I started traveling with a toy camera all over the world. In fact, people would just look at me like I was insane because I had some nice cameras with me, but I’d see something I really wanted to take a plastic-camera image of, which is horrible, too, because it’s plastic and it’s really easy to crack. You have to tape it up like crazy, using gaffers tape and have to do all these crazy little things to not let it fall apart or not have light sneak in.

So I’d be in Thailand or wherever taking pictures with people and they’d just look at me, like, not with pity, but I think people felt more open to have their picture taken with it. They didn’t take it so seriously. They kind of looked at me like I was ridiculous, and they were just being nice to me and letting me take pictures of them.

More relaxed, yeah?

There’s a disarming effect when you pull out a toy camera instead of a really nice digital camera. So I felt like it created a lot of questions and it created a lot of opportunities for me to talk to people and explain to them what I was trying to achieve.

Most in the Third World countries didn’t understand that. Most expected the fanciest, the nicest. “You’re American. You can afford optics.” The best way I could describe it is like Americans buying jeans with holes in them. Those in the Third World, if they’re going to by jeans, they’re going to want nice quality jeans without holes. It’s the difference between what’s fanciful and what’s necessity.

SN&R Photo By Nicholas Miller

When did you get your first toy camera?

I’d read about them, and I probably picked up my Diana 11 or 12 years ago, and I found it at a thrift store for $3. They’re impossible to find now. They’re a collectible.

How long had you been into photography before you got into these crappy cameras?

I’d been a photographer since I was 16, and for most of my life I’ve been into photography one way or another. So I’ve ran the whole gamut: from the crappy camera to the Hasselblad. So, it’s like “What paint do I choose?”

What other crap cameras have you experimented with?

I have two Holgas as well. And I use them differently, because I know that my Diana has a big huge spot dead center where nothing’s going to be in focus at all.

And the Holgas are really cheap, too. You’ve got the “cloudy” setting, the “half-cloud-half-sun” setting, and then the “full-sun” setting, so you kind of have to decide, “Oh, is this a full-sun or a half-cloud-half-sun?” It’s very, very low-tech.

What effect does this imprecision have on you as an artist?

The world seen through the lens of Ginny Giles’ Diana plastic toy camera.

It frees me. It frees me up a lot because a lot of it is chance. That’s the same reason that I shoot infrared film. Even though I have so much experience shooting infrared film, there’s still this element of chance—I don’t know for sure how it’s going to turn out. We become so jaded and used to things. We know how they’re going to function. These toy cameras are a complete departure from that. There’s a risk to it.

Where do you take your crappy camera to shoot?

Oh gosh, anywhere. I have a rigged up special camera bag for my Diana with a half-inch foam core so that it doesn’t get squished in any way, shape or form. I’ve taken it with me and my gaffers tape in foreign places. I wouldn’t think twice about shooting it anywhere.

Sounds weird to ask, but what is it like to work with film?

That’s a huge thing, because I like to print still. I prefer film to digital. …

It’s kind of old school, to go out with your crappy camera, have to tape it up, risk whether it will work or not. If you’re lucky enough to actually get a shot out of the crappy camera, then somehow you’re entitled to it.

There’s such an overabundance of images these days, it’s easy to take that for granted.

SN&R Photo By Nicholas Miller

Imagery is such a huge part of kids’ lives these days. I don’t even think I can wrap my mind around how a teenager sees things, because their whole world is different than the world us adults grew up in. Music, the way they share images—it’s a strange, strange world. There’s a lot of mimicry going on, and it completely goes against what I learned growing up about art. I don’t know how this plays into it—

Well, a lot of these toy cameras in their day were intended for kids to use, no?


So it’s weird that kids these days would never use something like them.

Probably. Maybe with your digital camera that is sub-par, you dispose of it. It’s really easy to throw things away. When I was young, photos existed in a box. … I think now, with photos, people get rid of things that in the past they would have no choice but to keep. I keep photographs that people throw away because I can’t stand to see photos thrown in the garbage, and over the years we’ve had tons of customers that get rid of their old photos, so I’ve got boxes and boxes of images from people that I’m not related to. And these photos are not posed. They’re accidental, “happy accidents.” And nowadays it’s very easy to go: “Oh, that wasn’t my intention. My intention was to get her looking serious.” Delete. Delete. Delete. These pictures are going away, and even the ones that are being kept aren’t being printed. Only the cream of the cream are being printed, and that’s true for me, digitally.

Getting back to something tangible, giving up control for a little bit of mystery and magic, is it. Somehow these images are magical.

And they’re not over-thought. They have a quality to them, and I’m not going, “OK, I’m going to go into Photoshop and layer this.” They’re perfect as they are. … These new technologies almost seem unreal and affected, like you’re trying too hard. When you’re trying with a plastic camera, it’s just fun. It’s not snobbish.

When I go out shooting plastic cameras, it puts me in a mood. My brain starts thinking like that. I’m out there and I’m looking for images. There’s that element of chance, and also that I know I want something moody. For example, I took pictures at the old city incinerator, on purpose, with a plastic camera. I wouldn’t have gotten anything like that with a traditional camera. You almost develop a tunnel vision, a vignette of that point in time. And when I’m out shooting that, it comes into my being.

Although it’s fun and it unleashes you, you’re more constrained, and that seems antithetical.

It definitely set you out on an assignment—a certain direction, a road. You’re more careful about the pictures. It’s precious, each shot. You know that each one is going to be cool, that it’s not just going to go “Oh, delete.” They’re little jewels. I want to go out and shoot right now, actually.