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Sunday, 15 September 2013


10 snapshots taken with a 127 camera
 "Attend to your configuration."
Edwin A. Abbott. Flatland.


The square is the most self-contained shape. Unlike the circle, the triangle or the rectangle, it makes no allowances for anything that exists outside its perimeters. Whatever intrudes is welcome but it has no extension, no existence really, beyond the square. Maybe that is why square was always regarded as a format for amateurs. Few professionals specialized in or preferred the square format, mostly because of its limitations. If editorial work required a square frame it was just as easy to photograph using a standard rectangular format and crop as it was to shoot square.

In 1912 Kodak introduced 127 roll film for its folding vest camera. Originally it was in a rectangular format measuring 3x4 cm, which was smaller than more common formats such as 120 but still large enough to get a decent contact print. All Kodak cameras were designed for the amateur market and 127 was always regarded as an amateur format. Though some later cameras might have sophisticated features such as a focusing ring or a choice of three aperture settings, a 127 camera would always be identified by its contemporary design and the materials it was made out of – Bakelite, die cast metal and moulded plastic. For some collectors, 127 cameras like the Kodak Brownie and the Ensign Ful-Vue rank among the most beautiful cameras ever built, regardless of their technical shortcomings.    

One of the perceived disadvantages of 127 was that in its rectangular format it only allowed for 8 frames. By making the cameras square format this allowed for 12 frames, or four more photos. Manuals were full of advice on how to compose a photo for a rectangular format; use the rule of thirds, make sure the background is interesting and so on. With square format it was simple. So long as the subject was in the centre, or close enough, it was hard to go wrong. 

Most 127 cameras relied on a single meniscus lens, usually made out of plastic. Rather than just bad, results tended to be variable. A camera that functioned well in bright daylight failed that test when a flash was attached to it. Sometimes one frame came out with perfect clarity while the next was ruined by light flares or poor focus. Two models of the same camera could have different qualities, one getting the background in reasonably sharp focus, the other recording it as bleached and muddy. This is of course why devotees still love the 127, and not just for its unpredictability, it gets effects they couldn’t emulate in the darkroom. 

During the 1980s Hong Kong companies began producing Holga cameras, essentially exercises in nostalgia. What people liked about them; their abberant focus, the way some colours were saturated and others washed out and the effect that produced a dark vignette around the border. The camera manufacturers started building these features in so the photographer could always be guaranteed of getting the Holga look. Later, photo editing apps like Creative Kit offered the Holga and Lomo options. This involved ramping up the contrast, softening the appearance, saturating reds and adding the vignette. This can make ordinary images look more interesting but Holga, Lomo and the editing apps miss one point; the real magic of amateur cameras lay in their unpredictability. To be assured of getting the Holga look is self-defeating.   

The photos in this post were taken with a 127 format camera in Quebec sometime between the mid 1940s and ‘50s. (The church is identified as being in Ste Victoire, between Montreal and Quebec City.)  The shots using flash in particular show up the camera’s limitations but they also have an atmosphere we couldn’t get from a better machine. We couldn’t get it from a modern toy camera like a Lomo either. That comes down to the difference between being natural and self-conscious. The photographer may have known some photos wouldn’t record the scene as he or she saw it but that was no reason not to take a photo, the point being to record a moment. Half a century on, Holga and Lomo photographers know what they are after and arrange the scene to get it. When you look at several of them at one sitting you can leave with the feeling they are not celebrating anti-professionalism or even a considered aesthetic so much as a visual pretence.


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