Toy Cameras – Four Corners Dark
What is the mystery of photography? Why do we love the static image? What is it that these fragments of reality, frozen in time tell us? What is it about the photograph’s ability to transcend commonplace existence that has taken it from an unrecognized set of chemical reactions to the most popular and life-changing art-form the history of the world has ever seen? Are we seeking knowledge of our place within the greater universal complexity? Or could it be that we are a conceited bunch of heretic animals in love with posing for and fawning over our own graven image? Is it not rather that we just love to command machines, fiddle with knobs, push brightly colored buttons and play with toys?
Ahh, toys. Ask most people when they started to fall in love with photography and many, if not most will hark back to the golden days of their childhood, when life was simpler, the sun shone brighter and film was, as the only option available, still cheap. Most photographers of today who were raised in the odd limbo generation of the 70s and 80s grew up on one or more of the futuristic Polaroid instamatics kicking around the house. Or maybe you had the cartridge-based 110 film and disc cameras, invented by Kodak and popularized with the Kodacolor VR, or any number of short-lived point and shoot cameras, that weren’t toy cameras per se, but today can be found lining the discount bins of used camera resellers and garage sales alike, the world over.
In 1957, only five years after MacArthur’s Allied Occupation (which due to its co-incidence with the beginning of the Cold War allowed those in command to rebuild the economy, democratize society and liberalize the stratified class system of pre-war Japan, thus constituting fertile ground to create one of the most concentrated middle classes ever, priming an economy ready for world domination), Fuji Camera introduced the Fujipet camera.
Marketed to a solely Japanese audience, this plastic camera would go on to introduce the hitherto western concept of leisure combined with the snapshot, for use by the whole family. From the instruction manual, “With the Fujipet Camera you can the pictures very easily just as you manipulate your knife and fork…The Fujipet Camera enjoys great popularity among children, mothers and all the members of the family and affords happiness in all homes.”
Whether the discerning Japanese buyers either disliked the quality or disagreed that mama-san should be left in charge of figuring out not only how to load the complicated 120 millimeter film, but also how to coax a crisp photograph of junior from the plastic meniscus lens, production stopped in 1963, likely due to increasing domestic salaries making production of higher quality and more lucrative camera products look better to companies and their investors. This would prove to be a microcosm of the much larger consequences of what would eventually transpire in Hong Kong with the Holga.
Looking back at the history of the portable camera, these popularized models produced by Agfa, Fuji, Yashica, et al were largely based upon the rush-to-market-mindset prevalent in the center of light industrial manufacturing Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong of the 50s-60s, producing a camera boom. A mindset that was not looking to mingle lightly in niche markets, but to take advantage of the massive buying power of entire middle class populations. It was the Hong Kong novelty manufacturer Great Wall Plastic Factory, in first producing the Diana, which in turn spawned tens of hundreds of clones, that unwittingly launched the modern day toy camera revolution. They were just trying to make a fast buck. In doing so, they made history.
“Cue the Clone Machine”
Despite being marketed to adults as serious, yet affordable alternatives to the cutting edge SLR technology available from a technologically more advanced Japan, Germany and U.S. camera companies in the 80s, these cheap, mass-produced cameras were possessed of a playful, toylike quality. Be it the cheap plastic design or the often blurry, grainy results, there was something definitely lacking in quality, though whatever was missing was made up for by human emotion. Whereas since their inception photography had largely been the realm of nature buffs and burgeoning artists, it was at this time that the by and large middle classes of the United States, Western Europe and Japan began to spend their growing disposable income on any and all cameras, the easier to operate the better. This “chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot,” mentality caught on like Californian wildfire and with it enough money for companies like Ricoh, Minolta, Canon and Nikon to dump millions into research and development, which would eventually culminate in the digital camera deluge visible across the globe. Now, thanks to Mr. T.M. Lee- inventor of the Holga- anyone can be a photographer.
“Very Bright Indeed”
Circa the western world experiencing three days of peace and music at Woodstock, others were concentrating on lighting up the globe in a different way. Universal Electronic Ltd., started in 1969 by Mr. Lee, was initially a very successful flash unit manufacturer, that is until the 1974 release of the Konica C35 EF – the world’s first thirty-five millimeter compact with built-in flash. When business began to drop off, Mr. Lee and company decided to diversify from merely peripherals to producing actual cameras as well. Thus the Holga – the name coming from the Anglicized pronunciation of the Chinese characters for “very bright”– was born.
Despite all signs to the contrary, it was not the original goal of Mr. Lee, nor any of the other manufacturers, to make toys, but rather to ensure that people are fascinated and interested in creative film photography. But business is business and in order to survive in the hotly competitive photographic trade it would prove necessary for Mr. Lee to continue to adapt his company’s vision to the often inexplicable demands of the niche market upon which he now focused.