Friday, May 20, 2011

Tripping the Light Plastic Fantastic: a (short) history of toy cameras

The original toy camera was the Diana; little more than a plastic box that let in a bit of light, it did not require a battery, and it had very few settings—two shutter speeds, three aperture settings, and manual focus. No one knows when exactly the Diana was first manufactured by the Great Wall Plastics Company, but it was first imported to the U.S. around 1966. In the U.S., the Diana was sold mostly in drug stores, especially drug stores in touristy areas, and generally retailed for sixty-nine cents—even in today’s dollars, less than $5. Similarly, though 35mm film was available, the Diana used the less expensive medium-format (‘120’) film.

Image from a Diana camera, courtesy Ty Ueda.
The Diana arrived on the scene just as photography became accepted in university contexts, and it gained in importance when photography instructors realized that the toy camera allowed students to learn the basics of composition without investing in expensive and complicated equipment. Jerry Burchard and Arnold Gassan in particular championed the Diana as a teaching tool.

Some of the students of the late 1960’s went on to become the first professional photographers to work with the toy camera. Nancy Rexroth’s Iowa was the first major exhibition of toy photography, exhibited at the Corcoran in 1971; and in 1979, there were more than a hundred entrants to The Diana Show, a juried exhibition in California. Photographers accomplished on much more sophisticated cameras enthused about the relative simplicity of taking photos with toy cameras, as well as the unpredictability of the image owing to light leaks.

Before The Diana Show had even concluded, the Diana had already been discontinued. But it had become so popular that several similar cameras soon came to take its place. Reader’s Digest and J.C. Penney commissioned their own toy cameras as promotional items. The drug-store market saw the introduction of the “Megomatic,” the “Snappy,” and the Future Scientist,” which were slightly more sophisticated than the original Diana. (They also pretended to be even more sophisticated than they were, with fake light meters and the like.)

But of course the Holga was the most important of the Diana’s toy camera successors; it was developed by T.M. Lee in the early 1980s. Intended to record family portraits and events of working-class families in China, the camera had to be very inexpensive. No surprise, then, that it was very rudimentary—even more rudimentary than the Diana. The Holga had no true aperture selection and one shutter speed; the focus dial was marked with figures in place of numbers. While the Diana’s images had been 4cm squares on 120 film, the Holga was capable of either square or rectangle images.

Holga image with 'dark corners.' Image courtesy Emily Scheideler.
The Holga was developed to accommodate the 120 that was the dominant film in the Chinese market, but while the camera was in production, the Chinese laws governing imports changed, and 35mm film swept the nation. Bcause of this, Universal Electronics had to seek other markets for the camera. It was successful in Hong Kong and then even more successful in Europe, where its images’ distinctive vignette effect (“dark corners”) was very popular.

Toy cameras’ popularity grew steadily throughout the 1990’s and has increased even more precipitously over the last decade, seemingly in inverse proportion to the strength of digital. Several organizations have manufactured and marketed a dizzying array of toy cameras. Unfortunately, because of the cost of both the cameras themselves and the processing, the latest generation of toy cameras has gotten away from what was the essence of the earlier generations—toy cameras’ accessibility to everyone, regardless of budget.

For more information, please consult
Michelle Bates’ Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity


  1. It's me Ty Ueda! You can find my stuff here!

  2. Wonderful blog & good post.Its really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!

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