One Word: Plastic

The profound philosophy of the cheap toy camera

The water beneath us is green and murky, and as we navigate the walkway onto Dan Beers's houseboat, it almost dares you to fall in. Eventually, Beers confirms, everyone falls in. We make it safely to his floating abode at the St. Paul Yacht Club. Inside, a small dog lies supine on the edge of a futon. The ceiling is low and the room teems with the clutter that comes from living in a small space. Authentic Edward Curtis prints in chipped frames hang on the wall next to cartoonish angels. Beers, who wears a tropical print shirt and glasses with thick black frames, printed these shots himself from the original negatives. He is, it turns out, a master printer with expertise in photographic processes of all kinds.

Beers unrolls long strips of photographic art paper varying in length from 40 to 80 inches, and they spill over the length of his table. The subject matter is deceptively mundane: a couple walking. But in each frame the couple appears a little more nebulous until they fade away. In other strips, cabs race against themselves in seemingly endless heats, family members stand accompanied by their shadow selves, towering buildings bend upward against delicate cherry trees.

Frames overlap, pictures go on and on. Beers calls these strips run-on images--odd panoramas rooted as much in time as in space. They look the way time feels--the now and now and now of it.

Life is just a walk in the park--until you disappear into existential nothingness: A "run-on image" by toy camera artist Dan Beers
Dan Beers
Life is just a walk in the park--until you disappear into existential nothingness: A "run-on image" by toy camera artist Dan Beers

The source of these timescapes is a plastic camera with heavy black tape around it, sitting haphazardly, lens down, on the table. It looks like something stubbornly resurrected from a junk drawer. This, I learn, is a toy camera, an item of cultish popularity among photographers and assorted hipsters alike, and the subject of its own local affinity club, the Twin Cities Toy Camera Society (www.meanlarry.com/toycamerasociety.html).

Beers encourages me to pick it up, a common refrain from toy camera devotees: You won't believe how light they are. Wielding a toy camera, Beers suggests, is an act of liberation, especially for those who take photography seriously. The device tests the tension that exists between the absolutes of the medium: shutter speed, depth of field, lens, and film stock on one hand, and the caprice of chance on the other. Some photographs work because they represent reality with pinpoint accuracy. Toy camera photographs work largely because they do not.

Beers purged his camera equipment several years ago, he explains, keeping only an expensive large-format camera and his trusty Diana, a plastic wonder manufactured in the post-war period by the Great Wall Plastic Co. of Kowloon, Hong Kong. (Today, Beers has about 100 Dianas, but only one of them sees regular use.) The company sold the molds many times over, the result being clones with colorful monikers such as Debonair, Dories, Mego, Rover, Snappy, and Stellar. Toy cameras, mostly of Chinese or Russian make, were often used as promotional giveaways and bait to sell magazine subscriptions. (Beers has Pizza Hut and Readers Digestmodels in his collection). They're not hard to come across: One Chinese model still in production, the Holga 120S, sells on the internet for as little as $20, and at one time retailed at Wal-Mart.

Ultimately, the toy camera designation encompasses a slew of plastic thingamajigs that produce images from soft to downright fuzzy. As with analog recordings, every imperfection is a part of the experience. Beers adapts the low-tech features of the Diana to create his striking panoramas. Plastic cameras, manual in the most rudimentary sense possible--there's often no automatic frame-forwarding, for instance--allow for the overlapping of images as well as for double exposures. They also use medium-format film--negatives are 2 1/4 inches square--making for an odd affinity with expensive medium-format cousins like the Hasselblad.

When asked about his preference for Dianas, Beers is nonchalant (he's often nonchalant, in fact), downplaying the differences between various cameras. But in practice he uses a Diana and only a Diana.

"They're worlds apart and they're the same," says the founder of the Twin Cities Toy Camera Club, Mean Larry, speaking of the differences between Dianas and Holgas. Beers describes the Diana aesthetic as light-centric, creating prints with a bright center and soft edges. "It makes things glow," he says.

Toy cameras are equally known to produce spectacular light leaks. In fact light leaks are an integral part of shooting. The attempt to limit these intrusions accounts for the heavy wrapping in black electrical tape that one will find around many toy cameras.

The battle against unwanted light typifies the paradoxical experience of using a toy camera. It is the accident-inspiring quirks of the equipment--the unintentional double negatives, the ghostly focus--that free the photographer from a slavish attention to technical exactitude. There's no benefit to be had from fussing endlessly; you've just got to master the art of letting go. At the same time, too many accidents can produce disappointing results--especially given the costs of developing 120mm film.

Learning how best to harness the unpredictable is a kind of zen craft all its own, and it tends to draw its practitioners together for consultation. This is the purpose of the Toy Camera Society, which hosts occasional show-and-tells and twice-a-year group shows in Northeast's Thorpe Building.

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