Kevin Systrom, one of the co-founders of Instagram attributes the creation of the powerhouse Photo Application and social network to a particular yet simple life event. He had chosen to study in Italy his Junior year of college, and a professor had replaced the state-of-the-art modern camera he had around his neck with the iconic but ultra-simple Holga toy camera.
The Holga is one of the ‘toy cameras’ that kickstarted a lo-fi photography craze in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was designed in Hong Kong in 1981 to provide low-earning Chinese families with a cheap camera that could take snapshots in sunny weather. The Holga used 120 roll film, a format that had been standard for many cheap cameras through the 20th Century. By the time the camera came out, 35mm film was everywhere and 120 roll film virtually disappeared in China. They began to market the camera as an inexpensive novelty to Western markets as a ‘starter’ camera.
The Holga was a camera reduced to bare-bones simplicity with only the bare necessities for photo mechanisms and provided a cheap and accessible alternative for people to dip their toes into the otherwise expensive world of photography. The Holga began a new life championed by photographers and artists who appreciated its glaring limitations and drawbacks, creating images that made a virtue of overlapping frames, light leaks and severe, tunnel-vision vignetting. Photographers who used the camera were actually fond of the vignetting. The ‘classic’ Holga shot is a square format 6×6 image, with the corners reduced to deep darkness. It is a very distinctive look which may have influenced the Influencer.
As digital photography took hold in the 2000s The Holga’s influence actually flourished. The classic Holga square format shot gained a new life on cellphones. 15 years ago, cellphone photography was in its infancy – the screens on our phones were tiny and extremely low-resolution and those deficiencies helped fuel the lo-fi digital photography craze. Those light leaks, vignetting, cross-processing saturation and dreamy focus fall-off that made Holga’s photos so distinctive were easy for the little cellphone camera technology to duplicate. Naturally, once your turn every cellphone owner into a semi-professional photographer, there needs to be a place to share those photos.
Systrom graduated college in 2006 and after working for Google for a bit began developing a ‘gamified check-in app’. He noticed the low quality of the photos users had uploaded and focused on writing the code that would add filters to the app - using dial-up Internet at a bed and breakfast in Mexico. At the time, the most advanced version of the iPhone was the iPhone 3G. The camera quality was less than ideal so Systrom drew from his experience with the Holga in Italy and created filters that could make use of imperfection.
The billion-dollar photography app-turned-social-network owes some of its DNA to a cheap plastic camera that is evidenced by its iconic logo. Instagram’s bespoke filters allow a drab photo of the Hollywood sign look like an old timey postcard. They made the square photo a modern standard maximizing screen space and looking interesting at the same time and wrote code to imitate and commoditize imperfections that have inspired artists for almost 50 years.
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