Last Updated on 04/12/2019 by Mark Beckenbach
If you’ve ever wondered what the most unique project ever done is using a toy-like camera, this out of this world Holga project likely takes the spot.
Crude and low-tech as it is, the Holga remains one of the most popular cameras for nostalgic and even quirky film photography projects. But one project upped things by several notches by taking it way out into the stratosphere. The brave and bright minds behind the idea actually flew not one, not two, but four Holga cameras to make sure they snagged the shot!
At the helm of the project was Chicago-based photographer and educator Dirk Fletcher and his Modern Alternative Photographic Practices students at the Harrington College of Design. It may not be the first film camera to ever bring home photos of Earth from outer space. But it does take the spot of the most simple or even toy-like camera ever to have been flown high up in the stratosphere and lived to tell the tale. They flew the four Holgas in the summer of 2013, and of course, they documented the fateful flight in the video below.
So, what did it take to get the humble Holga soaring around 20 miles above the Earth’s surface and survive the plummet back on solid ground? A lot of work, as Fletcher shared in his blog post on the project. The biggest challenge for his team was how to trigger the cameras as they hovered way up in the stratosphere. For this, one of his students came up with a mechanism robust enough to trip the shutters at frigid, near space temperatures. It involved two power door lock actuators, to which Fletcher added a short segment of PVC pipe and various cuts of wood for a mechanism that held two cable releases.
Next was how to position the Spot II satellite GPS tracker in such a way that it kept pointing up towards the sky. While it wouldn’t be a problem as it floated up on the weather balloon or made its descent on the parachute, Fletcher noted that retrieving it may be difficult if the payload landed on its back or nose. The light bulb moment came in a visiting student’s suggestion to place the GPS unit in a Gyrobowl. Indeed, a cradle inspired by the special bowl designed to keep kids’ food from flying about did the trick.
Lastly, they needed a vessel to house the four Holga cameras, along with the tripping mechanism, GPS, and Two GoPro cameras. Fletcher revealed in a TIME feature that they ended up with a three-foot by two-foot styrofoam cooler. They loaded the cameras with Kodak films, and one of the cameras loaded with Portra 400 captured their Kodak moment. The result is a slightly overexposed and saturated shot of the Earth below, with the addition of a hazy overlay from the radiation fogging.
“So (this is kinda funny) we had an award that we gave each year at our annual photo competition called the Golden Holga. We actually painted a Holga gold and mounted it on a little base from the hobby store. The ‘statue’ remained in our checkout cage for the year but the students name was added to it.”
Sure, projects like this done with digital cameras instead of the Holga yielded better results, but that’s not really the goal here. It’s all about sending a simple, toy-like camera somewhere it’s never been before to find out what it can do. Needless to say, it was a fun learning experience for Fletcher and his students!
Fast-forward to more recent times, we were recently able to get in touch with Fletcher to ask about his thoughts on the project. To fill in what we gathered from his blog post, we picked his brain for stuff like attempts to do the project again, his students’ reactions after the completing the flight, why the Holga was specifically chosen, and other possible developments or improvements to take it to the next level.
Phoblographer: It’s been nearly five years since the project. Have you done this project again with your classes in the recent years? Any changes/improvements done to these recent attempts?
Fletcher: I was the Department Chairman of Harrington of Design’s Photography Department from the programs inception in 2004 until the entire school was absorbed by Columbia College in Chicago. Being a purely digital program we had a bunch of students who were shooting film for personal projects and interested in analog photography. Each summer I taught a class called Modern Alternative Practices in Photography. We looked at lots of photographers who were blending traditional and modern technologies in contemporary commercial, advertising and editorial photography. It was a super fun class as we kinda nicknamed it BCS 440 for “Building Cool Sh*t’. I probably taught the class four or five times before the school (and students) became Columbia students.
The year we did the Holga Project was the last year we taught the class (I’m now a Professional Market Rep for Canon). If we did the class again, I’d probably go to the other side of the spectrum and send up a camera and lens combo that would yield a high level of detail and resolution. That being said, a larger portion of the class was student driven. I’d present some possibilities for the group projects and the students would build on them. If we decided to shoot some Super8 in space we’d work on that…
Phoblographer: Why did you/your students then choose to use the Holga for this project, given that more modern cameras can produce better results? What was their reaction seeing the photo?
Fletcher: So (this is kinda funny) we had an award that we gave each year at our annual photo competition called the Golden Holga. We actually painted a Holga gold and mounted it on a little base from the hobby store. The ‘statue’ remained in our checkout cage for the year but the students name was added to it.
After watching a bunch of Stratosphere projects in class, a student joked that we should send up the Golden Holga. Another student then joked that we should send up a real Holga…and we were off. My knee jerk reaction was “you can’t do that, it’d be hard to trip up there, blah blah blah…” It was kinda unanimous after that we were going to spend the rest of the semester trying to figure it out. The launch that made the image was actually after the summer semester had completed but we were determined to get it to work. The same student who first made the joke about sending up the Golden Holga was the one who (after working on his car for a weekend) came up with the idea to try a power door lock actuator from a car to trip the cameras. After testing several different ones we ended up using one for a Ford F150 pick up truck. The payload carried 4 cameras and two door lock actuators with each door lock actuator tripping two cameras.
“If we did the class again, I’d probably go to the other side of the spectrum and send up a camera and lens combo that would yield a high level of detail and resolution. That being said, a larger portion of the class was student driven.”
The project was more about overcoming the challenges, then create the best picture ever of the Earth from the stratosphere. The photo is proof that we got four toy cameras 20 miles up in the air and got them to fire.
Phoblographer: You mentioned in your blog post that you’re open to helping people do the launch. Has anyone taken your offer up since then? What was the experience like for them?
Fletcher: Several have reached out looking for information on where we found some of the supplies. The flight computer, balloon, squawker and such…
“While we joked about trying to do an interstellar wet plate camera, I did spend some time thinking the entire foam enclosure could be made into an 8×10 camera and try to get a shot that way…”
Phoblographer: We’re curious — have you found a solution to the fogging caused by the radiation? Do you think there’s any way to keep the film protected from it?
Fletcher: We haven’t given it too much thought. If we were to do it again we talked about wrapping the cameras in lead ‘film bags’ but weight is so crucial. Every ounce of payload needed a certain amount of helium to lift it. FAA regulations mandated the payload be less then 9 pounds.
Phoblographer: Lastly, if you can fly another simple/toy camera like you did for this project, which would you choose and why?
Fletcher: You could go so many different ways with this. The super cool thing about using a Holga (or similar Diana) was that it had never been done (and to my knowledge it hasn’t been done since then). Sending up a modern high-res digital camera would be easier in so many ways as you can just have it on an intervalometer and let it bang away for the entire 2 hours and then just pick out the winners and be done. I’m still so floored that with only one test launch (which is what we’ve decided to call our first failed attempt) we were able to get the timing right and the cameras tripping mechanism to work.
“We haven’t given it too much thought. If we were to do it again we talked about wrapping the cameras in lead ‘film bags’ but weight is so crucial. Every ounce of payload needed a certain amount of helium to lift it. FAA regulations mandated the payload be less then 9 pounds.”
A little while back I saw a guy who built a Carbon Fiber one shot 4×5 camera with a 90mm lens on it that was incorporated to his parachuting helmet. He’d shoot one frame per jump. While we joked about trying to do an interstellar wet plate camera, I did spend some time thinking the entire foam enclosure could be made into an 8×10 camera and try to get a shot that way…
The Holga provided such a cool challenge, it was learning experience like no other. To this day, I’m not sure if the students or I got more out of it. I still remember tearing up when rockstar student (who took the class two summers in a row) Alfonso Monroy (@elfonz89) called from the lab to tell me that we got one frame with earth in it. It’s been my iPad screen ever since.
Photos used with permission from Dirk Fletcher