September 3, 2023

From Roxbury to Revere - Shooting Film and Living in History: How My Image Selected for the 2023 Somerville Toy Camera Festival Came to Be

So excited that Fly Like a Tern, my image shot with a lo-fi plastic toy camera called a Holga, was selected for exhibition in the 10th Annual Somerville Toy Camera Festival. Culled from a pool of 500 submitted images, show juror Ann Jastrab chose 89 photos by 64 artists, who represent 18 US states, The Netherlands, and England. The work will be on display in three galleries across Somerville, MA from 9/7/23 to 10/7/23.

9/10/23 at 3pm marks the opening reception at The Nave Gallery where my image will be on view. Details for all the galleries here.

Fly Like a Tern

The Festival call for entries describes the toy camera aesthetic:  "Celebrate the flaws, the quirks, the accidental genius that lousy lenses can create! Images of any subject matter, made with a “toy” camera (or any low-tech camera with no or very limited exposure control, such as pinhole, Holga, Diana/Diana clones, Brownie, Ansco, disposable cameras) are eligible.  Key criteria are plastic lenses and lack of reliable exposure control."

My Holga 120 film camera, purchased used for 10 dollars and held together with tape.

With my college students, I constantly infuse teaching the creative process.  Here is the story that led to me capturing Fly Like a Tern.

One evening, while playing drums in my basement, I took breaks and randomly pulled books off of shelves. I am blessed with a bounty of art-related books, many bequeathed to me by my art loving and art collecting parents. One title was Route 22,  with photos and text by my friend Benjamin Swett.  The book includes his contemporary photographs of buildings paired with historical images of the same structures.  Another chanced upon tome was Drawn to Art, shown below. While I have not read much of this 1985 book, the images of historical buildings and scenes prompted me search out the contemporary locations.  I bet that stumbling across Route 22 inspired this approach.

Drawn to Art - A Nineteenth-Century American Dream by Diana Korzenik
Blackboard 1877 by Winslow Home

From the front flap:  "In this moving narrative, Diana Korzenik tells how a group of largely rural, working-class people, both men and women, aspired to become artists in nineteenth-century America. The author uses her discovery of a rich collection of documents, including letters, journals, sketchbooks, and artwork, to give a unique human dimension to the educational developments of that time. The three children of the Cross family of New Hampshire, all of whom became professional artists and engravers, just happened to be touched by leading educators, printmakers, and publishers at the critical moment when America was learning to draw with a fervor akin to today's movement toward computer literacy. Like many others, they experienced the illusion of promise which the art of drawing held out to students and also the sense of disappointment when almost overnight their skills became obsolete as technology changed."

A 2022 view of the Prang Printing Company building shown in 1867.
At left are educational American Drawing Cards printed by the Prang Company.
Prang also printed chromolithographed art reproductions,
revolutionizing the distribution of art to the masses. 
Location is Roxbury, a section of Boston, MA

l’m taking the above picture with my iPhone and a woman in the third-floor window of a building across from Prang, asked me if there’s a picture of the building in the book I am holding.  I say, "Yes, they used to do color printing there."  She says, "Oh yeah they used to do printing in this building.  The neighborhood is really interesting.  The old church up the street, Paul Revere rode his horse down here, and they built a mosque over there."  I pointed Roxbury Community College and say, "This is new."  And she says, "Yeah that’s all new since I’ve been here.  I've been here 20 years."

The Prang building at right. You can see the "P" at top right.
In the background is the minaret from the 
Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center's mosque.
Shot with my Holga. 
And then I see a Muslim woman covered head to toe. I’m trying to get a shot of her silhouetted against the Prang building. She moves off to the side.  And I realize she’s trying to get out of my picture.  All I could see were her eyes; they were heavily made up and expressive. Her clothes are all black, save for a stitched pattern along the sleeves. She has a large phone in one hand and a water bottle on the other. She was apologetic about getting in my picture.

I asked her if I can take her picture, and she says OK, and I’m just trying to get the settings right, trying to pose her, trying to get the framing and a man comes out of a restaurant.  They talk and then she says she doesn’t want her picture taken anymore. She says that she doesn't like being on the news and I say it won’t be on the news, just on my website, and she says no, she won’t do it. She doesn’t want to be out there. She said people will see her on the website and call her. I asked if we could just do something without showing her face, and I realize she’s uncomfortable, so I say don’t worry, don’t worry, and she says sorry, sorry, and I know there’s several people on the street watching and looking out for her.
Quadruple exposure of the Prang building taken with my Holga.

Normally while shooting film photography you want to avoid double or multiple exposures.  The design of the Holga is missing a safety stop thereby allowing one to easily take unintentional multiple exposures, or, as in the case above, easily take intentional multiple exposures.

My series of intentional multiple exposures taken with a digital camera is called Reality-Based Abstraction.

I recently experimented with a mirrorless digital camera: Deconstructing Digital Precision and Predictability to Achieve Analog Uncertainty and Variability.

"Future is Our Focus" states the upper left banner for Roxbury Community College.  You can see downtown Boston to the left of the minaret.  The red brick building at right is once again the Prang Building. Panorama shot with iPhone. Click image to enlarge.

On my way to the next location featured in the book, I stopped by the studio of friend and mentor, photographer Lou Jones.  I lamented "the one that got away" as I recounted just missing a photo of the Muslim woman.  After briefly commiserating with me, Lou explained the in and outs of photographing women at a mosque, noting the layers of cultural norms he had to navigate to capture the assigned imagery.  

Speaking of "the one that got away," I once photographed a fisherman with my Holga and we realized there are many connections between photography and fishing.  Read more about this.

Aiming to find the location of this beach shanty where one of artists featured in Drawn to Art lived, I plugged Point of Pines into Waze and up popped the Point of Pines Yacht Club.  The caption states the location as Point of Pines, Revere, MA. Probably mid 1870s.  iPhone image.

The front door of the yacht club was locked.  I walked around the side and found some workers on the pier waiting for access through a locked gate to work on a boat.  One of them saw me struggling in the strong wind trying to hold the book while taking a picture with Point of Pines in the background.  He volunteered to hold the book for me.

"The Pines Historian," self-proclaimed. 
Looking East towards the point. Shot with my Holga.
I am out on the beach about where I think the beach shanty was located and meet Chris and his dog. He said he lives in his grandmother's house, at Point of Pines. He says he collects any kind of maps he can find, but didn’t have anything as old as the drawing I had in the book.  I wondered if the shack had been right on the point, and he said a thing like that wouldn’t last long in a storm. I asked if those are the "pines" over there, as I saw a few pine trees, and he kind of laughed said something like, what’s left of them." We traded phone numbers.  As a parting comment, Chris quipped, "I'm the 'Pines' historian – self-proclaimed!"
Chris texted me some images from his historical collection.  He thinks we met just beyond the boat houses at top left.  Looking North toward the point.
Looking East towards the point.  Perhaps the location of the beach shanty.
 Panorama shot with iPhone. Click image to enlarge. 
"The Coney Island of The East" Another gem image from Chris's collection. 1890s.
We met at the point at the far right.  Looking West.

After Chris texted me these amazing images, I replied, "Thanks again Chris! Maybe you are more than self-proclaimed!  He replied, "Still self proclaimed. Just nice for someone to appreciate it."

Connecting to Spirit. Shot with my Holga.

After saying goodbye to Chris, I walk down the beach back to my car.  It is blustery with a hint of thunderstorm in the air.  I feel fully present in the moment, exhilaration coursing through my body.  

Fly Like a Tern

A few feet from me terns are diving into the ocean to catch fish.  I catch one of the terns flying in the sky with my Holga.  This image is later accepted for the 2023 Somerville Toy Camera Festival.


In the 80s and 90s, I shot film as a professional photographer.  These days, working as a professor, I shoot film to explore the intersection of art and technological change.  Thanks to The Darkroom for their excellent processing and scanning of my film.

Part 1: Shooting Film After All These Years - Process

Part 2: Shooting Film After All These Years - Pick Hits

Go back to top of blog.

Professor John Nordell teaches courses in the Arts, Media, and Design Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at and teaches online Zentangle drawing workshops.  


Anonymous said...

Amazing story!