The Diana

Many image trends are indebted to the bad design of a cheap plastic camera from the 60s.

Written by      

Hong Kong began to manufacture a wide variety of plastic toys for export after the Second World War, boosted by the United States’ embargo of China. In the early 1960s, one factory, the Great Wall Plastic Company, decided to get an edge on its competitors by adding something new to its line-up of products: a toy camera.

Quality was not a priority in the design or manufacture of the Diana. It had a plastic meniscus lens, two shutter speeds, three aperture settings, and could shoot 16 four-by-four frames on 120 film. The lens caused heavy vignetting, the focus was soft, and cracks in the shoddily fitting housing frequently leaked light onto the exposed film. Sometimes the film spool only advanced partially to the next frame, or stopped working entirely.

But they were extremely cheap. In the United States, they cost US$1 (about $8 in today’s currency), and many were given away in product promotions. According to one advertisement from the mid-60s, acquiring a free Diana was as easy as buying eight or more gallons of petrol from Helm’s Atlantic Service in Middletown.

The Diana was popular despite its flaws—or, in some cases, because of them. Its soft focus lent a dreamy quality to everyday life, while its unpredictability, highly saturated colours, random blurring and distortions made the act of photography less serious, more spontaneous.

Ohio University started using the Diana in its photography programs to emphasise to students that whizbang technology and panoplies of camera features were not important to the creation of art. One of its graduates, fine art photographer Nancy Rexroth, loved how the Diana instantly gave reality the look of a distant memory, and used it to shoot her seminal series about childhood, Iowa.

Meanwhile, other plastics manufacturers had their eye on the Diana’s popularity, and cheap cameras boomed. Nestle released a cow-shaped novelty camera to promote its yoghurt. In 1971, Americans could exchange three tin labels and US$4.95 for a bright blue camera shaped like a tuna.

Eventually the Diana was eclipsed by the Kodak Instamatic—which didn’t require its users to wind the film, and didn’t blur and distort its subjects—and by the mid-1970s, manufacturing of Dianas had ceased.

Two decades later, the Lomography movement stumbled on the camera and found it of equivalent optical distortion to the Russian LCA camera they favoured for experimental photography. The Diana began to be manufactured again in 2007—although these days, the basic model sells for US$89, a 1025 per cent price increase from the 1960s—and its effects are memorialised through countless image-editing filters.