Friday, May 20, 2011

Toy Camera History

A History of Toy Cameras by C. Gary Moyer

**The following is by no means an entire history of toy cameras. What I have done is pieced together the information I have acquired and read over the years. I have cited my sources and to the best of my ability have outlined my understanding of the beginning of the toy camera movement.

Early Years:

The original Diana camera was introduced in the 1960’s by the Great Wall Plastics Company, Hong Kong. It was a very cheap and plastic camera that cost under a few bucks. The Diana used cheap and readily available 120 film of the time. This very camera paved the way for toy camera photography as we know it.

An article titled- “$1 Dollar Toy Teaches Photography” penned by Elizabeth Truxall appeared in a 1971 issue of Popular Photography magazine. Elizabeth was the Chairman, Dept. of Photography at Ohio University, Athens. She had her class utilize the Diana camera when some students complained of a lack of fancy camera equipment. By using the Diana, everyone was on the same page equipment wise, and had to rely on their vision to make pictures. Nancy Rexroth was a graduate student of this class and went on to publish the book Iowa (Violet Press 1977) and had a portfolio in the Aperture-Snapshot issue (1974).

An article titled “Visions of Diana” by Don Cyr appears in the fall 1977 issue of Popular Photography. This was a nice article on the use and processes of using a Diana camera. The second part of the article was called “Diana Derivations- a portfolio by Arnold Gassan” which showed images and commentary of his use of the Diana camera.

“The Diana Show” by David Featherstone and the Friends of Photography book. In 1979, The Friends of Photography had a show of Diana images from various photographers. A catalog of this work was put into book form called “The Diana Show”. It represents the work of 43 photographers and is copyrighted 1980. (ISBN 0-933286-17-l)

Various other publications developed over the years with toy camera work appearing such as- “Angels at the Arno” Eric Linbloom, “The Creative Camera” Nancy Howell-Koehler, and Shots magazine issues- 12, 53, and 68. A great interview with Nancy Rexroth appears in Shots issue 65.

Some noted names to Google when looking into the early days of toy cameras: Nancy Rexroth, Mark Sink, Ted Orland, Gordon Stettinius, Jonathan Bailey, and Mary Ann Lynch to name a few.

The Holga is born:

In 1982 Mr. Lee and his Universal Electronics company dropped the Holga camera onto the market. Known mostly for being a flash and accessory company, Mr. Lee looked on how to branch out into the camera market. Since the camera was going to be marketed mostly at the time to mainland China, the cost had to be low and perform consistently to survive. By the early 90’s, word spread of this camera and orders were coming in from overseas. People really loved the quirks and toy like qualities from this plastic beauty. Today, there are numerous models and accessories to choose from. Hats off to Mr. Lee for keeping this vision going even though he may not have recognized its significance back in 1982.

The Online Community:

The very first place that I came across online for toy camera individuals to gather was It was started by HJ Seely and Kurt Stepnitz who were members of GAC. ( Great Lakes Area Plastic Cameras) They talk about their humble beginnings in an article dated July 4th 1999 in Photofreak magazine. After Harv and Kurt left, the reigns of were turned over to Mike Barnes who steered us through a whole new chapter. This included the publishing of our first book titled “Toycamera”. It was a released in 2004 and included the work of 26 photographers (myself included) who frequented the website. The next project was a few calendars sold thru Lulu self publishing and some print swaps. In 2005 we produced the “Toycam Handbook”. I was heavily involved in this and at the time, it was the only and most thorough book on toy camera photography ever produced. It still sells very well to this day as it is a very valuable resource for someone who wants to get involved in toy camera photography. Another great publication that still continues to this day developed at toy is Light Leaks magazine. Produced in house my its members and is the only currently produced print magazine that specializes in toy camera photography.

Toy cameras take off:

The last few years have seen a great growth in toy camera and lo-fi photography. Gallery shows, publications, online groups, and endless supply of new toy cameras coming to market. This will probably be considered the heyday as its popularity has sky rocketed due to the internet. No longer considered an “underground” movement, you can now buy toy cameras at trendy stores such as Lomography and Urban Outfitters. I have even seen a Lomo camera at Target. There are plenty of books on the subject with the majority consisting of self published guides or photo books thanks to online self publishing companies.


Purchase Toy Cameras:

I also have to highly recommend Michelle Bates (The Holga Queen) books:

Plastic Cameras- Toying with Creativity

and her second edition


*Please ask for permission to use this article in any shape or form. Thank you.

C. Gary Moyer has been using, collecting, and writing about toy cameras for the last 10 years. Catch his regular column, “Gary’s Toy Box” in Light Leaks magazine.


Suzi said...

Great article Gary!

Jose Manuel Madrona Navarro said...


Mary Ann Lynch said...

I LIKE this Gary -- it's a good, concise, easy-to-read overview with some info you don't often see.

(somehow my first post went out as "Anonymous.")

SOPHIA POP said...

I congratulate you for the information provided, I'm trying to find the article published in Popular Photography in 1971 by Elizabeth Truxell. Do you have it you? I'd like to read to complete my research on the beautiful Diana.thanks!