The Promise of the Disposable Camera

Launched by Fujifilm and Kodak in the late 1980s, modern disposables were sold cheap in drugstore aisles and popularized picture-taking in new settings.
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Launched by Fujifilm and Kodak in the late 1980s, modern disposables were sold cheap in drugstore aisles and popularized picture-taking in new settings.
A Kodak disposable camera.

From the start, photography always fancied itself a democratic art—a medium that would allow every man to be "his own printer and publisher," as photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot wrote in 1839. Never mind that you could only afford the hobby if you were upper middle class.

The industry would grow more affordable throughout the 20th century, led in the United States by George Eastman's Kodak company. With low-cost, user-friendly cameras like Kodak's, photography was suddenly far cheaper and easier than painting and other visual arts. Championing photography's democratic nature went hand in hand with expanding Kodak's market: Any moment could be documented, as long as you went to Kodak for the tools. The business thrived on the promise of accessible art.

That promise was crystallized in the disposable camera. Launched by Fujifilm and Kodak in the late 1980s, modern disposables were sold cheap in drugstore aisles and popularized picture-taking in new settings. Disposables turned wedding guests into event photographers and replaced travelers' pricier equipment on outdoorsy vacations. Geared toward such moments, the cameras remained popular into the 2000s.

Kodak embraced the ideals of the Progressive Era early on, aggressively marketing cameras to women from the outset with the launch of advertisements featuring the Kodak Girl—a pretty, camera-wielding woman—in 1893.

Today's smartphone has overtaken the disposable as the latest democratizer of photography. In fact, it's done one better: put some money into the hands of novices. In recent years, companies have begun paying people for posting about brands on Instagram, or for taking selfies to pass onto advertisers, who scour the images for voyeuristic insights into what people actually eat for breakfast, or where they buy beer.

Of course, that data stands to benefit big companies at least as much as it does the selfie-takers—smartphones themselves are costly, and more accessible in advanced economies than in developing ones. But at least disposables remain cheap: You can buy a Kodak Fun Saver Single Use Camera for just $7.99.

A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Pacific Standard, which was produced in partnership with Magnum Photos. Follow them on Instagram here. Subscribe to Pacific Standard now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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