As both a big-time collector and a no-holds-barred shooter of the Diana camera, Tony Lim knows the iconic camera inside and out. His personal collection boasts over 100 Diana cameras and Diana clones, and he’s responsible for organizing a personal exhibition of Diana cameras and photos entitled “Hong Kong Toy Camera Photography.”
You might also know him as a key organizer of the now world famous Pinhole Photography Day. As a visual and product designer — as well as a university instructor — he’s uniquely qualified to clue us in on the Diana’s original concept and it's importance today. Soak up some expert words from Master Lim himself in this interview.
Hi Tony! We’re curious to know as many details as possible about the Diana camera. First off, could you tell us how long ago the cameras were produced, and where they were sold?
According to a Hong Kong government catalog, the Diana was first introduced by the Great Wall Plastics Co. in the early 1960s. The factory was located in Hong Kong’s Kowloon City. This time was a sort of “golden age” for the country’s plastic industry. Great Wall was one of those common, family-run factories, and it was not a precise or high-tech optical plant. In addition to the Great Wall factory, there was at least one other company in Macau that produced Dianas and Diana clones. There may have been more but it’s hard to know exactly how many.
The main market was definitely the United States. Hence, the cameras were produced with English writing, and the distance scale was printed in feet, not meters. It’s tough to gauge the exact year that Diana production stopped, but it’s most likely the mid-to-late 1970s.
What was the idea and concept behind the Diana? Was it heavily inspired by the Fujipet, or by another simple 120 camera of its time?
No I don’t believe that the Diana had particular relationship to the Fujipet. Overall, these simple 120 film cameras were very common in the ’60s. However, I do feel that the Diana was heavily influenced by the Agfa Isoly. Both cameras were 4x4cm format. And all the handles, levers, and controls are in a very similar position. The main difference is that the Isoly had two shutter speeds: 1/30 and 1/100s.
The idea and concept for the Diana was simply to be a toy or a giveaway. It certainly wasn’t precise. It seems that most Dianas had little to no quality control for their optics. That’s what makes them so brilliantly unpredictable!
How about marketing and advertising? How was the camera generally presented to its customers? Any crazy stories, collaborations, or sponsorships connected to the Diana’s promotion?
As far as I know, the retail price for the Diana was about $0.99 USD in the 60s. It was presented as a toy or a simple giveaway. The packaging was very simple, usually a cardboard box or plastic blister pack. It’s possible that many Diana owners never even put a roll of film inside their camera!
The Diana was popular as an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] product. This means that outside firms would contract with the Great Wall factory to produce cameras with their brand names. Hence, there are Dianas that say Reader’s Digest, Shell, etc.
What was the scope of the Diana’s production? Can you estimate about how many cameras were produced? How about the size and number of employees of the Great Wall Company?
Great Wall was a small factory. Only a few workers would have been required to produce a ton of Dianas. Most of the Hong Kong plastic factories at the time were small and family owned. The total amount of Dianas produced is impossible to count. I can’t even imagine how many were made! For a cheap camera made 40 years ago, you can still easily find deadstock pieces which have never been opened or used. The production volume must have been huge! We know that a lot of Converse Chuck Taylors were made, too, but you can’t find deadstock Chucks as easy as [you can find] Dianas.
There are so many Diana variants and copies out there, and we know that you’ve owned quite a few of them. Can you estimate about how many variants there are?
At the very least, there were more than 100 variants. I personally have about 80 to 100 Diana clones with at least some difference between them. At least the packaging design and graphics are different. In terms of actual tooling and camera functions, there were probably very few basic variants on the original Diana. My personal favorite is the all-original Diana. But I also really want one of the Dianas which was made in Macau. They are super rare!
When the camera was first released, what did everyone think of its pictures? Did they appreciate the Diana’s effects?
I doubt that most Dianas were ever used as serious cameras. I’ve tried out so many of them, and nearly everyone has a focus problem, light leaks, or other quality issue. It’s almost impossible to find two of them with the same photo outcome. Every Diana is unique, and a bit unreliable in its own special way. If it was considered a real camera, then they probably wouldn’t have made so many of them so cheaply. I believe that most of them were given to children to play with, and [that the] film was never actually placed inside.
In the 1970s, late into the Diana’s production run, there was a magazine talking about “Diana Photography.” In the story, a professor used a Diana to teach the basic principles of photography to his students. With the Diana, he suggested that they could forget about function and merely concentrate on the act of shooting. You can just focus on the image and the concept behind it. So in that way, the Diana’s sheer simplicity was appreciated.
The Diana ultimately became an extremely desirable cult item for artistic-minded photographers, but who were its original target customers?
With a retail price of $0.99USD and a wholesale around $0.25, it was definitely positioned as a toy. And given the sheer volume of deadstock still available, it probably wasn’t too successful overall. There’s a lot of stock that wasn’t sold to end customers! However, as the plastic cost was so low, and the OEM market so robust, it’s possible that the item was profitable. The factory certainly never treated it like a real camera or gave it any serious quality control. A quality German-made folding Agfa camera retailed for $2.99 USD at the time, only three times as much as the toy-like Diana. If people wanted a real camera, they probably spent the extra money on something like that.
You’ve shot a ton of amazing images with the Diana camera. What do you consider its most appealing attributes?
There are two very important things. First, the camera has a lot of unexpected defects. This gives you a lot of possibilities for an interesting result. Diana images match the outcome of Pictorialism, where the fine art feelings of the photograph like soft focus, dreamy colors and so on look a bit like a painting, and are more important than the subject itself. Diana shots have that same strong, visual impact.
Second, the Diana offers a “clearance” of your soul and mind. It’s simple to use, and enables you to detach yourself from the photograph process. Even if the shot’s not in focus, your brain is!
Vintage Diana cameras currently sell for around $100 on the used market. What do you think the original designers and producers at the Great Wall Plastic Factory would think of that?
They would never believe it! It’s true that design items will have a life of their own. The creators can’t forecast the future 40 years ahead.
In today’s world of digital photography, do you feel that the Diana is still relevant? Why?
Both digital and analogue photography have a great market and relevance, and are very connected. When digital photography grows strong, then the need for new analogue photography techniques grow strong as well. Once they experience it, many people fall in love with this new sense of photography. With the supply of photographic equipment and possibilities increasing, the demand for all kinds of new experiences like the Diana will go up as well.