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Memories Not Disposable: A History of Single-Use Cameras

Posted on 03 June 2016

I was born in 1991. Film still reigned over digital, but the non-celluloid movement was certainly starting to make waves (and scare folks at Fuji and Kodak).

I first held dinky (sort of) auto-focus Minolta and Canon cameras, crunched my way through a healthy number of disposables, and then learned more about photo-photos in my teens with a digital camera in hand. Now, I like to think I've struck a healthy balance - just one digital camera, a Canon that's more computer than camera, and hefty lot of 35mm and medium format cameras. I find genuine value in both digital and film photography. My dissertation on that debate can be saved for another post. 

We talk photos a lot at Hand-Eye as it's a big part of what I do here and a fascination/hobby for many of us in the store. And while we dream and boast of Canons, Hasselblads, and under-appreciated Argus bricks, I still find myself picking up a disposable about once a month. The feeling in-hand drops me back into the mid-nineties, neck cranked back to capture a towering tree above. The flip of the film-advance turns me back in a moment-catcher, not a picture-maker. There's an immediacy and an ease offered by this pocketable picture machine. Single use cameras offer a cut of nostalgia, a chance to make memories (not perfect images), and they have a storied past. And I hope they have a future...

The Beginnings / The First Patent

In 1886, one hundred years before single-use cameras would achieve true relevance and permanence, Alexander Pop Whittell founded the Ready Fotografer Company and released a "portable photographic apparatus." In an effort to make photography accessible to the masses, he patented a camera made almost entirely of paper and a dry photo plate. With no focusing required, Whittell's camera was made for any person of average ability. After taking the photo, yes, one photo, you needed to carefully cut through the cameras in the bevel, remove the plate, and get it developed. A cut up camera - ah, a disposable! These cameras sold for 25 cents, came with a 24 page manual, and to a degree, achieved Whittell's goal. However, they were manufactured for less than five years. Though Whittell's design had it's limitations, it kicked off the "democratization of photography" - a sentiment and energy that still guides consumer camera today. 

Aside from Kodak's introduction of roll film in 1888, right in step with Whittell's efforts, the disposable camera race slowed until after WWII. 

The Middles / A Camera for the 'Average Person'

And then, in 1948, with the baby boom just starting to rev it's fertile engines, two disposable cameras started the new convenient camera race - Frederick Bierhorst with his Picture Box, billed as "The World's Most Convenient Camera," and the Photo-Pac made by Alfred D. Weir, an engineer from Dallas. Poor little Mr. Bierhorst was simply outdone by Weir and the Photo-Pac. Weir, like Bierhorst, made his camera out of paper and 35mm roll film, but there was one material that set it apart, gave it staying power: plastic. 

Weir debuted the Photo-Pac at the 1948 Texas State Fare at 98 cents. A year later, he improved the camera from 8 to 12 exposures and raised the price to $1.49. The intrigue of the Photo-Pac was it's unique durability, and the convenience of shipping your camera right to the company for development. In 1950, Fawcett’s Inventor’s Handbook named the Photo-Pac one of the "15 Winning Ideas of the Year," but as the trend would have it, Wier's company did not survive the next few years and it was the "Imp" camera introduced by Arthur W. Beaurline, one made entirely of plastic, that made the next big splash. Designed to be sleek, simple, offering 12 exposures on 35mm film, the Imp and the later addition, the "Pro," hung around for two decades. 

Disposable cameras were starting to get a grip on the market. Other companies, including Technicolor were trying to compete, adding exposure stops and unsophisticated metering. They were starting to show up in drug stores, hotels, and amusement parks. And two big giants, Kodak and Fuji, were about to get into a film war - one that would inspire innovation and provide the biggest breath into the life of single-use cameras.

Fuji v. Kodak / The Film Race

By the late 1980s, thanks to some aggressive advertising and a little risk-taking, Fuji had caught up to the once seemingly unconquerable giant of Kodak. In the spring of 1987, Fuji released the "Quicksnap" - a disposable of 35mm film for $10. Kodak responded with "The Fling" a disposable loaded with 110 film for only $6.95. Kodak was likely thinking, "We're selling a worse camera, but hell, our price point is better. We'll stay competitive." They didn't. In less than a year, they released a 35mm version. And in 1988, Fuji responded with the "Quicksnap Flash," the first disposable with a flash. This set the standard for disposable cameras moving forward. And with the race fully on, both Fuji and Kodak in a war of disposability in an effort to insure their permanence, people were starting to question the legitimacy of these little throw away machines. 

Over the next few years, photo pros would question using something temporary to capture something forever. Kodak and Fuji would continue to add to their designs - underwater versions, telephoto lenses, "panoramic" and "3-D" capabilities, and so on. Now, if disposables were first made to democratize the form, we have to say Fuji and Kodak were losing sight of the original subject within Mr. Whittell's viewfinder back in 1886. But they had reason to run with the trend. In 1988, only 3 million were sold in America, and in 1990: 21.5 million. 

As they became more relevant throughout the country and the world, disposables not only appealed to people that planned to leave their nice camera behind, but more importantly, impulse buyers...

"Look, the world's largest ball of twine!" says Dad, Teva sandals tight around his untanned peds. "I wish a had a camera," he bellows. Dad then spots a convenience store nearby, picks up a Quicksnap, and there's a victory for Fuji. 

Disposables continued to enjoy a healthy life through the 90s, but they had a new, very scary beast breathing down their paper and plastic necks: digital. Kodak, Fuji, and just about every executive and professional photographer wet the bed and refused to believe they were now living in the future. Kodak and Fuji failed to fully evolve, and in 2004, for the first time, digital photo sales surpassed film sales. And in 2011, Kodak filed for bankruptcy.

Staying Disposable  

We're in the digital age. That's undeniable. And the gritty evolution from film to digital is for another post. But there's beauty in the disposable's ability to hang around. In 2011, 51 million rolls of film were sold in the United States with an estimated 31 million of them coming from disposable sales. 

When I romp around with an Ilford HP5 single-use or a Kodak FunSaver, without fail, someone says to me, "I didn't know they still made those." They do, and while some of 70s America feared we were heading toward a culture of careless disposability, I think we could use more of this easy-to-use, truly unpretentious stuff. At least here, you can pin the prints you like on a wall and physically, tangibly throw away the ones you don't like - it's more than hitting the trash can icon on the back of a big do-anything camera. Keep both, use both, but it's worth flinging around these single-use boxes of sentimentality for a quick snap now and again.

Some of the photos here are from a 2014 trip through Olympic National Park. I only took disposables with me, it rained, it poured, I got prints/scans poorly developed at Walgreens, and these photos remain some of my personal favorites.  

References:
First Disposable
Disposable America
Kodak's Digital Moment

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