Early in his career, renowned fine-art photographer Stephen Shore made a project using a Mick-a-Matic, a snapshot camera shaped like the head of Mickey Mouse. True story.
It’s funny to imagine one of America’s foremost photographers out in the world making art with a Mickey Mouse head hanging from his neck. But many artists have used toy and novelty cameras. For Shore, the Mick-a-Matic allowed him to explore snapshot photography as a concept and phenomenon at a time when photography as an art form was formal and almost exclusively shot in black-and-white.
Other artists are drawn to the unpredictability of toy and plastic cameras. Photographers “love these toys, they love the authenticity of the unexpected,” says Buzz Poole, co-author of Camera Crazy, a new book that recalls the history of mass-market cameras, from the Eastman Kodak Brownie Camera, released in 1900, up through present day toy cameras. The book is a delightful look at the fascinating and, at times, ridiculous forms cameras have taken. In addition to popular and well-known cameras from Diana, Holga and Lomography, there is a Fred Flintstone camera, soda and beer can cameras, a Charlie the Tuna camera, a Looney Tunes camera that talks, and a spy camera shaped like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups package. “That is just a weird product,” Poole laughs. “[The manual] tells you how to trick people into stopping so you can get a clear picture of them without them knowing.”
Poole and co-author Christopher D. Salyers based the book on Salyers’s toy camera collection, which he’d amassed over more than a decade. The authors supplemented the collection with purchases from collectors, and images from camera manufacturers like Holga, Lomography and Japanese companies Powershovel and SuperHeadz. The book includes images of, and taken by, more than a hundred cameras, accompanied by short articles about the manufacture of each. The book also features interviews with Holga creator T.M. Lee, Lomography, Impossible Project CEO Creed O’Hanlon and Shree K. Nayar, who invented the Bigshot Camera, a digital toy camera that users build from a kit.
Lee, who created the Holga to fill a demand in China for an affordable camera, was initially disappointed with the results. The cameras were plagued by light leaks, vignetting and inconsistencies. “He was as surprised as anyone with the way that [the Holga] was embraced, especially in the west,” Poole says.
“Celebrating the unexpected and cherishing it—that’s what makes these cameras and the analogue film process so special, and it’s what Instagram tries so hard to replicate,” Poole adds. “In terms of a larger metaphor for how culture understands photography and the relationship between an object and an image, the toy cameras are really interesting examples of how those ideas have been shaped.”
Poole believes the toy camera movement will remain alive and well, supported by analogue enthusiasts and people who simply like the cameras. “They are nice objects,” Poole relates. He also points out that companies like SuperHeadz are creating digital novelty cameras. “They are not necessarily different than the camera in your phone, [but] they are still materially different…. People like objects. We are material beings.”
Camera Crazy is now available from Prestel. The authors will participate in a panel discussion about analogue photography, and the role of toy and novelty cameras in contemporary photography on Wednesday, November 19 at the New York Public Library. The panel also includes Paul Kwiatkowski, Michelle Bates, Christopher Bonanos, Christian Polt, J. K. Putnam, and Arezoo Moseni.
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