Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Feature Photographer - Isa Leshko

This month, I’d like to introduce you to Isa Leshko. Isa’s wonderful “Thrills and Chills” series is shot using Holga cameras, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share her work with you all, and ask her a few questions.

Image Copyright James Goncalves

How did you get introduced to your first Holga and how long have you been shooting?

My first photography teacher, Ri Anderson (http://rianderson.com/) gave me my first Holga about six years ago when I visited her studio (which was then located in Boston). We were chatting about my work and I complained to her that I couldn't afford a medium format camera. She reached for a Holga on her shelf, and immediately gave it to me. Prior to that, I had only worked with a 35 mm camera and had done mostly street photography. But, I longed to shoot medium format because I was finding myself drawn increasingly to square format images. I also liked the increased detail of a 120 negative. And it seemed all the cool kids were shooting medium or large format. ;-)

That Holga though sat unused for several months until my summer shooting began. I took it to Salisbury Beach, a boardwalk in MA which was a favorite spot of mine to shoot at that time. From that first roll came the image, "Salisbury Beach, #5"

"Salisbury Beach, 5" (Gelatin Silver Print)

I was absolutely stunned when I printed that image in the darkroom for the first time. I loved the wrinkles in the fabric and was amazed by the detail rendered through a plastic lens. But what hooked me was the quick falloff in sharpness and brightness which contributed to the dreaminess of the image. I will admit though that this image was purely a lucky shot since I had no idea what was I doing with the Holga. The rest of the frames on that roll certainly confirmed this fact. But this image encouraged me to learn more about the camera and seek out the work of other toy camera photographers.

What is it about the Holga that draws you to it? Why do you shoot with it?

There are the usual reasons that most toy camera photographers talk about: the lack of technical controls gives me the freedom to focus on the composition and emotional content of my image. But I think that this camera is helping me exorcise some personal demons. I am a perfectionist in my day to day life, which is not always a healthy trait to have. Creating images with an inherently flawed camera helps me find beauty in imperfection. That said, after the moment I click the shutter, I am obsessive about getting the highest quality prints possible from these negatives, which as you know is not always easy. So there is a definite tension between immediacy and precision that runs throughout my work.

I am fortunate to have found an incredibly talented master printer, Paul Sneyd of Panopticon Imaging, who is my collaborator in the darkroom. Although I learned to print in gang darkrooms, I don't have access to a truly archival darkroom to create exhibition-quality prints for sale. So I began working with Paul a few years ago. He understands that I need to retain creative control of my work and I'm by his side when we're printing my images. He respects my vision, and helps me achieve exactly what I'm looking for in a given print....

I also find working with a Holga camera to be inherently challenging, and not because of its obvious technical limitations. There are a number of critics of toy camera imagery who think of it as gimmicky. I disagree with any blanket criticism about a photographic process or technique, particularly one I'm using. ;-) But I do see their point of view. I try hard to resist the temptation to use visual artifacts of the Holga as a creative crutch. When I'm editing my work, I ask myself: Is there more to this image beyond its vignette and blur? Needless to say, a lot of work ends up on the cutting room floor!

Finally, I highly value how light and indestructible toy cameras are. I have two herniated discs in my back and one herniated disc in my neck. As much as I love the look of a 4 x 5 negative, I have a difficult time lugging around heavy gear. I love that I can take these cameras with me everywhere and not worry about them getting damaged. When I shot images from my beachscapes series, I would lie down at the water's edge as the tide was coming in. I would never do such a thing with expensive camera gear.

"Offering to the Gods" (Gelatin Silver Print)

Your "Thrills and Chills" series has been receiving a lot of (well deserved!) attention lately. Could you tell me a little bit about it and how you go about your shooting process?

I feel very fortunate by the reception my work has been receiving lately....Thrills and Chills is a project which explores both the fantastic and sinister place amusement park rides hold in my imagination. I think the Holga is the perfect camera for this project; the quirkiness of the plastic lens enables me to disrupt the sense of scale when I'm shooting these rides. I frequently shoot these rides against the open sky so that they lack context. I like that it's not always clear that these human-machine hybrids are amusement park rides (as is the case with ”The Claw”). Shooting in black and white also helps me strip any sense of time and place from these ride-centric images. I deliberately print the work dark to reflect the murky-realm that I envision these mechanical beasts inhabiting.

"The Claw, Topsfield Fair, MA" (Gelatin Silver Print)

As I'm shooting, I try to remember how I felt as a child looking up at these rides for the first time. That's why the vantage point for these images is frequently shot from below. I frequently lie down on the ground to shoot these rides to exaggerate their height. I also typically have 6-8 cameras dangling from my neck and arms when I'm trolling for pictures. (Yes, I do attract strange looks as I'm working!)

This past summer I visited the Wildwood, NJ, Dorney Park in Allentown, PA, and Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, OH. I recently moved to Houston, TX and plan on visiting fairs and parks throughout the South this summer.

"Waiting" (Gelatin Silver Print)

Is it difficult shooting at amusement parks? Or fun?
It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it. ;-) Seriously, though, I do think the project does have some inherent challenges which are ever present in my mind when working. Mainly, this subject matter is rather well worn and it's difficult to bring a fresh perspective to it. So many photographers have explored this subject through their own lenses. When I visited Coney Island in 2008, for example, I was struck by the number of photographers I ran into while working. I think that place is to urban photographers what Yosemite National Park is to zone system photographers. I even found a few lens caps lying in the street during the day of my visit. I kid you not.

So as I work on this project, I am keenly aware that I risk taking cliche or nostalgic images when photographing this subject matter. I hope I've managed to avoid these pitfalls and bring a new vision to this subject.

Now that this project is about 2 years old, I am now facing a new set of challenges: how can I photograph this subject in a way that fits within the existing body of work yet isn't too redundant with other images in the series? Toward the end of this summer, this question bubbled to the surface, and it's one I'll be wrestling with during the off-season.

"Coaster At Dusk, Hershey Park, PA" (Gelatin Silver Print)

I know you mentioned in a recent article that the rides terrify you - have you ever been on one? Would you go on one in order to get THE shot?

I have been on many rides and enjoyed them when I was younger. My fear actually arose as I got older. But even as an adult, I've gone on rides thanks to my (now 12-year old) niece, Francesca, who loves amusement parks and begs me to go on rides with her. I agree as long as she holds my hand. ;-)

I shot "Point Pleasant, #1" when I was with Francesca one summer evening in 2006.

"Point Pleasant, NJ #1" (Gelatin Silver Print)

This image kept tugging at me and eventually inspired my Thrills and Chills project. So I have my niece to thank for this work.

I have certainly gone on rides for this project and felt it was important to make images while I was in the throes of my fear. For example, "Girls on Buccaneer, Hershey Park, PA" was taken in August 2008 while I was a passenger on that ride. It's not easy to compose an image and then advance film manually while on a ride that's making you feel ill! I went on that ride several times in a row in hopes of getting a shot like this one. I am fascinated by the complex emotions people exhibit as they surrender themselves to these rides. In many instances, their experience is anything but amusement.

"Girls on Buccaneer, Hershey Park, PA" (Gelatin Silver Print)

Unfortunately, this past summer I was unable to go on any of the rides because I had recently herniated a disc in my neck, which was very frustrating. I hope next summer I'll be able to go on some rides, but I think I'll have rely mostly on capturing reaction shots from the sidelines. ”Girl on Tilt A Whirl” was taken from this vantage point.

"Girl on Tilt-a-Whirl, Coney Island, NY" (Gelatin Silver Print)

Favourite film(s)?
For B&W film, I'm very fond of Ilford HP5. For those relatively rare occasions in which I shoot color, I use Kodak Portra VC 400.

Your favourite Holga photo that you've taken?
My favorite image is always the one that I haven't taken yet that will give me my next creative high. I am only half joking here. In the fall of 2008, I saw Sally Mann talk at the MFA Boston. Toward the end of the lecture, an audience member asked her what she feared. She paused and then said that she fears never taking another great picture. She talked about how restless she gets after taking an image she really likes. It's as if the image taunts her: "Oh sure, I'm a great image, but can make another one?" Several of us in the audience laughed and squirmed when we heard these words because we could relate to this experience. Sally's honest answer was a gift to the artists in the audience that day. Since then, when I've felt that way I was comforted by the fact that someone as brilliant and accomplished as Sally Mann experiences these very same fears.

As a more direct answer to your question: one image that I took this summer that I'm particularly smitten with is "Dangling Legs". Although I love the happy accidents that occur with Holga images, this image turned out exactly as I had pre-visualized it, and I still get a little flutter in my stomach when I view it.

"Dangling Legs" (Gelatin Silver Print)

Favourite amusement park food?
I'm a vegetarian and share most (if not all) of Michael Pollan's views on food, which means I frequently have a tough time finding food I'd actually want to eat at an amusement park. There are days in which I subsist largely on french fries and soft serve ice cream. I have joked with friends that Pepcid AC is the proud sponsor of this project. I was very happy to find a veggie burger and very decent salad on the Wildwood Boardwalk. Both are rarities in amusement parks. Still, I have a weakness for fresh cut french fries with salt and vinegar and fresh squeezed lemonade.

Thank you Isa for taking the time to answer my questions and for letting me showcase your work!

Isa also has a series on her website entitled Elderly Animals, which I love and would highly recommend you check out!

"Moonie, Age 32" (Archival Pigment Print)

Isa’s web site: http://www.isaleshko.com
Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/IsaLeshkoPhoto
Twitter: http://twitter.com/IsaLeshko
Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/isaleshko/sets/

All files are copyright Isa Leshko
Edition size for each image is 20; call or e-mail for availability.
Image size for each image: 9 x 9 inches; paper size: 11 x 14 inches. Larger print sizes available depending upon the image.


  1. Big fan of Isa's work, great interview :)

  2. a wonderful interview with gorgeous images!

  3. An interesting article and some great shots. I don't have a proper 6x6 negative scanner, and so have not used my old Rollei and Zeis Ikoflex for a number of years, tended to concentrate on old 35mm cameras, but would like to get back to using 6x6. The idea of the point and shoot Holga is attractive, I love using my old Olympus Trip for the same reason.

  4. Great images, Isa and a great interview, Jen.

  5. I always have fun working with Isa and her Great images.It is really nice to work with a Talented client that knows exactly what they want there images to look like. Jen you could not have picked a nicer person to interview.
    Paul Sneyd

  6. Wow! I really enjoyed reading this interview, and I don't often read a whole article. Great shots, so interesting. Thanks for sharing this! x

  7. Wonderful interview. Inspiring!

  8. Nice read! Congrats, Isa. This work is a good time. But if I controlled the universe, I would enjoy reading about the elderly animals series as I find that work to be so moving. But I'll take what I can get. Very thoughtful and direct writing.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Aaah... I am thinking the elderly animal work is possibly not a plastic lensed project. Perhaps I am getting along in years myself...



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