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Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

June 25, 2008
Toy cameras are the new fashion accessories. These unsubstantial, plastic film cameras particularly dominated the Chinese markets between the 1960s and 80s, when they were mass-produced and favoured predominantly for being inexpensive and readily available. Now, in the digital era, they're making a comeback.

Since the advent of modern consumerism, there have always been fashionable retro objects phases every few years or so; the returns of the yo-yo, lava lamps, and 'Magic Eye' images for example. Such objects, however, are generally ornamental, which makes the stylistic trend of technological regression in low-quality cameras particularly distinct and one that requires explanation in order to grasp exactly why it's such a hit. Initially observing the devices reveals little - they're crude, badly moulded lumps of plastic, almost laughable in appearance. Shake them a bit and they rattle around, and are supplied with a plastic strap in most instances. If the flash fails, troubleshooting generally involves little more than replacing the double-A batteries that power it. Materially primitive and manufactured with few if any mechanical tolerances, they produce poor quality images, streaked with light that leaks through gaps in the plastic body of the camera, often blurred and equivocal in appearance. Costing around 30 ($60) for a starter model without all the trimmings, they're still as expensive as a cheap night out in London. So, why are people raving about them?

Toy cameras take notoriously poor quality images, which many find adds to their retro charm.


They're really terrible, that's the point. Not only are they pieces of pop culture memorabilia, the cameras also revolt against the precision of the digital age. People love them for their unique and unpredictable snaps. With the pairing of digital lenses to a host of gadgets, we increasingly take pictures on a night out only to put them on a computer, forgetting that they ever existed, lost on a hard drive forever. The toy cameras, on the other hand, serve to restore the excitement of waiting for photographs to develop, and at the same time create more arty and surreal visual memories. They give users the ability "To concentrate your creative powers on capturing the moment and telling a story-rather than fiddling with a bunch of knobs and levers", as the Lomography company (chief retailers of the modern toy camera) put it. They may be about twice the size of a digital camera, but thanks to their nearly all-plastic composition they're about half the weight, and adaptable. Plenty of websites also exist to showcase modifications and the novel effects achievable with this disposable item.



Like most things in the 'trendy' realm of today's culture (Lily Allen, downloading music, social networking sites, et cetera), the toy camera has benefited from extensive Internet popularization. The most successful of the cameras, the Diana and the Holga, have thousands of blogs and sites dedicated to their revival. Online art communities serve as social clubs for followers of the old format, disciples displaying their beloved images by the hundreds. The surge in the toy camera's popularity has meant that they've become more noticed, and the corporations are cashing in. The Lomography company sends cameras to buyers worldwide, and for prices far greater than more resourceful trend seekers can find on Ebay or in thrift stores. Urban Outfitters has also profited from the craze, stocking the Holga in stores in the US and the UK. The White Stripes launched their own personalized limited edition 'Jack' and 'Meg' version of the Holga and Diana cameras; sold at a substantial markup, the cash ploy left some fans rather disgruntled. As one student and fan of the band who anticipated the White Stripes editions put it, "I couldn't believe the price, it was crazy".



Considering the obvious technical drawbacks, are toy cameras really all that their fans make them out to be? Like beauty itself, the answer to that is in the eye of the beholder, and how much one truly enjoys taking snaps. In value terms, the process of using it is not as cheap as the camera itself. The cameras themselves are easy to operate, using basic focus settings and a flash button like a disposable camera, and really is the definition of a "point and click" process. Mechanical simplicity, however, is where the practicality ends. Carrying the huge, ugly lumps around can prove to be an annoyance in itself. The non-standard films aren't as readily available as 35mm stock, and development of images can take weeks and cost up to around 10 ($20) per roll.

Despite all of their drawbacks, and even in the face of Polaroid's recent announcement that it plans to cease production of the iconic Instamatic film, toy cameras should be taken as a sign that all is not lost for analogue. The resurgence in popularity of medium format film photography shows that there remains room for expansion in the marketplace and that film should not be dismissed as irrelevant just yet.

SEE ALSO: www.lomography.com
SEE ALSO: www.holgamods.com
SEE ALSO: www.dianacamera.com
SEE ALSO: www.savepolaroid.com

--
Heather Minto
No biographical information is currently available.

See other articles by Heather Minto.

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