Culture

Tracing the original 1950s Diana camera back to Hong Kong

Aug 02, 2018

Sixty years ago, in a factory in Kowloon Bay, a product came into being that would revolutionize photography.

Not that anyone thought so at the time: the Diana was a cheap plastic toy camera that didn't work very well and was designed to be more or less disposable.

Yet it has become a classic precisely because of its deficiencies.

The Diana was really basic: made entirely from plastic, including the lens, it had tons of faults. The housing didn't fit properly and usually had to be taped to prevent light leakage—light randomly splashing across the images. The view through the viewfinder also didn't necessarily represent the content of the photo.

Check out those light leaks toward the bottom right of the picture.
Check out those light leaks toward the bottom right of the picture.

The film needed to be wound on manually, but it wasn't clear how far you should wind it, so the number of 4cm by 4cm photos on a roll of film was unpredictable, and there was the ever-present possibility of a double exposure if you forgot the winding bit; also, the film didn't fit very well and often jammed.

The camera had three aperture settings and variable focus, but the shutter was set at a single speed. Or at least it was in theory, but in practice it could vary unpredictably from about 1/100 of a second to about 1/50.

Users loved it partly because it was lightweight, but that also meant it tended to wobble when shooting.

No two images are the same; in fact, no two cameras are the same—no two Dianas will record the same scene in the same way.

The camera was made in Hong Kong by the Great Wall Plastics Factory. And it was most popular in Britain and especially the U.S., where they retailed for an eye-poppingly cheap US$1, and sometimes even less.

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They were sold wholesale for about a quarter of that and as a result were often given away free as prizes and promotional items, frequently branded with the names of the companies giving them away; Reader's Digest is particularly ubiquitous.

The camera's unreliability, however, meant that when better-quality, low-price cameras came along the Diana's days were numbered, and production ceased in the mid-1970s.

Enter the Lomography craze

It seemed, like so much redundant technology, the Diana was destined for the great landfill of history, except for one factor: the unpredictable, glitchy effects it produces are sought by aficionados of the art of lomography, or lo-fi photography, which repositions its technological defects as advantages.

Diana images are soft-focus, unpredictably blurry and full of unexpected light effects, with a dreamy, color-saturated quality. No two images are the same; in fact, no two cameras are the same—no two Dianas will record the same scene in the same way.

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Hong Kong photographer Tony Lim Chi-kin, who has more than 80 Dianas, which he has collected since 2003, says the camera's appeal lies in "the unexpected distortion of images. It's like I'm shooting reality, but it is not the same as what I see and understand. It means that seeing is not believing."

Lomography started in Austria in 1991 as an art movement.

Sanami Kwok Tung, Hong Kong-based Asia regional online manager of the Lomography company, says: "It's the very dreamy effect created by the plastic lens - the photos have character. There's also the fact that you can add lots of accessories, plus the look is really classic—some people just like to have it in their homes, and you often see the Diana as a prop in photo shoots in fashion magazines. It's a very good camera to learn about film photography, and it's a really interesting tool to create art projects."

The term "lomography" refers both to the artistic movement and, with an upper-case "L", to the organization that promotes it, Austrian company Lomographische AG, which sells updated versions of vintage cameras and promotes the culture of lo-fi photography with its Lomographic Society.

A special gold edition of the Diana F+.
A special gold edition of the Diana F+.

Lomography started in Austria in 1991 as an art movement, when a group of art students found they liked the imperfect images created by the Lomo Kompakt Automat camera made by the Lomo company of St Petersburg  in the then-Soviet Union.

The emphasis is on spontaneity, and on focusing on the subject rather than the camera—lomographers point and shoot rather than worrying about setting the camera up or trying to get some kind of mythical best image. Photos are displayed in exhibitions as panel-mounted galleries of images, forming impressionistic collages.

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With a playful tone that betrays its origins as a contemporary art project, the organization positions lomography less as a simple photographic proposition and more as a lifestyle, a way of looking at the world, and even has 10 Golden Rules—the last being to not worry about rules.

In a world where almost everyone carries a professional-quality digital camera in their smartphone, the idea of imperfect, uncontrollable photography has a certain appeal.

What's the original factory doing today?

The Diana F+ is made in China but the original Diana 151 and Diana F, the latter with a built-in flash, were "Made in Hong Kong."

The company that created it, which like the camera itself started life in 1955, is still in business today, albeit with a different name and focus: Great Wall (Optical) Plastic Works, now part of Cosmos Machinery Enterprises.

The company is located in Cheung Sha Wan in Hong Kong, and relies on a factory in Dongguan, China, where it makes binoculars, microscopes and magnifying glasses under the brand names Lumagny and Waltex.

A spokeswoman says no one who worked on the Diana remains there today.

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Adapted from an original article that first appeared in the South China Morning Post.