If you hunt through the Yorkton This Week archives, there will be a specific advertisement. It announces that you can get a free camera with the purchase of four tires. The catch, of course, is the camera, which isn’t actually very good, being a Diana. It’s cheap, it’s plastic, it’s not particularly well made. I have one thanks to a trade made with a friend of mine, and it’s entirely possible the camera was one of the ones given away in that promotion.
You can still buy one, actually. They are still being made somewhere in Russia, and you can buy them in several colours as well as supporting several types of film. The modern version has all of its trademark features, being cheap, plastic and poorly made.
These are its headline attributes, and the reason why the company that makes them, Lomography, feels comfortable pricing them at over $90 a piece.
The weird thing about the camera is that all of its detriments have become its assets. It is, objectively, a terrible camera. It’s shockingly poorly made. The lens is not particularly good. It’s incredibly simple with maybe three settings. And that’s the appeal, once you have admitted that you’re not going to be using this as a main camera it suddenly has a weird kind of merit. It has a personality, it produces unique image, it has become an object of desire because it’s bad.
I’ve got a couple of these bad-on-purpose cameras. I have a simple child’s camera with a tiger on it, I have one of the many millions of cameras given away by Time Magazine. Both of them are bad, cheaply made, clearly not designed with much thought.
And they’re fun, because you can treat them like that and have a good time. And, when you know the flaws, suddenly you make work that’s about the flaws.
That’s becoming more and more common. People are filming with VHS Camcorders again. That seems unfathomable in an era of everyone having a cheap, high quality digital video recorder right in their pocket - even my relatively basic phone is going to get results that are much better than anything that was recorded to VHS. But the look of VHS is unique, and people are fascinated by the fuzzy, static-lined look of those old cameras. Engineers who have spent their lives getting the best out of their digital sensors are going to be flabbergasted that anyone would ever want to haul out a massive camcorder again.
If people still used film cameras as their every day device, nobody would buy a Diana, it’s bad. If people still filmed on VHS every day, they’d be confused as to why anyone would turn down the video capabilities of an average smart phone. But because they’re novelties, they’re suddenly desirable – it’s a deliberate choice to make something worse, because it’s unique and interesting.
It’s not logical, but art is about emotion, and so people will be finding ways to use worse objects to make it. And, honestly, I get it, because right beside that Diana is a digital camera which will take better pictures than it ever will. But there’s no way that the digital camera will take a picture worse than the Diana, and that’s weirdly important. The limits of an artistic tool become an aesthetic of its own.