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Erin Gibson

In this age when photographs are measured in megapixels, the concept of "film" photography seems as antiquated as the telegraph.

Yet film can produce something that digital cameras can't. Perhaps the film jams, the subject blurs or a shaded vignette bleeds into the periphery of the image.

Erin Gibson calls these "happy accidents."

For Gibson, an experimental photographer in Springettsbury Township, the craft is in playing with a camera to see what kind of vignetting, blur, light leaks and other distortions appear in an image.

"It's more of a challenge and more interesting to me to not know what the outcome is going to be," she said in a 2010 interview.

"Just like imperfect people, imperfect photographs are usually the most interesting."

Gibson has collected 15 vintage film cameras from flea markets and eBay. She shoots primarily with Polaroid instant cameras and $20 toy cameras called Holgas -- cheap plastic devices once popular as carnival prizes.

She sells her prints on the arts and crafts Web site Etsy, where her gallery includes failures of film development or overexposure. The results can be "quite beautiful," she said.

Several prints for sale bear the stain of Polaroid chemicals that didn't mix correctly and some that got caught in the camera's rollers, causing a crack or break in the image.

In a self-portrait she took in a mirror, Gibson's camera produced a band of white light whooshing past her face. The overexposure illuminates her features in fuzzy pastels, creating a ghostly image.

"Polaroids have a softness to them. It's almost like looking at a painting instead of a photograph," she said.

Gibson has modified several Holga cameras for experimentation. For example, she converted one Holga into a pinhole camera for long-exposure shots of still lifes. The box cameras use medium-format 120 film and produce 6-inch-square images -- a fuller frame she prefers over 35mm film.

Some of Gibson's misdeveloped Polaroids and Holgas get a mixed media treatment: She has toasted and frozen Polaroids to see what happens (sometimes the color changes or cracks). Other prints she's painted, rubbed with charcoal or covered in wax paper and copied with a scanner.

"Until the chemicals completely set, sometimes you can manipulate the colors," she said, poking at a Polaroid print whose dyes she pushed around with a finger before the emulsion set. "I save the failures for when I have an art project that involves destroying a (print)."

Brandy Brown, a painter and friend of Gibson's in Clemson, S.C., said Gibson's work is a "celebration of imperfection."

"With the quality you get out of some of her vintage cameras, you get a photo of what you took a picture of but you also get this extra something that the camera does," Brown said.

"What is interesting and fun about these cameras is they force you to not see the world in a way. They see the world instead, and you get what they come up with."

It takes an artist's eye, however, which not everyone has, she noted.

As a photographer, Gibson is a self-taught, learning by reading books and material online. In school, she studied graphic arts, graduating from Bradley Academy for the Visual Arts (now The Art Institute of York) in 2003.

Gibson's day job takes her to a printing company in Lancaster, where she helps produce graphics that appear in financial reports and corporate prospectuses. Some day, she'd like to make her art a full-time venture. Hopefully, the film will last.

Polaroid stopped manufacturing its product a year ago. A new company has begun producing instant film, but it's pricey (about $15 for a pack of 10), Gibson said.

Gibson said the limitation can make for a more thoughtful photographer. Unlike digital photographers, who can take hundreds of shots and delete the duds, she must conserve.

"It forces you to be more precise," she said. "And plan better."