Artists of Artifice
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
A dispatch from dispo culture.
By Claire Shang
My childhood bedroom has witnessed many cries over the years, but this one was different. It was sometime in July, and the cycling blare of the Duane Reade hold music played from the speakers of my phone. I’d dropped off a disposable camera in May, hoping to develop my last pictures from my senior year of high school. From 112th and Broadway, I expected the Fujifilm QuickSnap Flash 400 to make its way to a film developing facility and return within two weeks.
The weeks passed and still I hadn’t received my prints. In June, I started calling the branch once a week, and by way of apology, explained with escalating desperation that the oversaturated photos really meant something to me. In the meantime, I planned my dorm room wall, leaving blank spaces for the prints. Then it was August, and my housing was cancelled for the fall.
The missing pictures figured themselves into a strange absence that resurfaced in my mind, phantom-like, throughout the semester. It was a short-circuited anticipation, a loss without having lost anything at all.
The disposable camera, or “dispo,” has seen an improbable resurgence in the past half decade. In 2017, Fujifilm sold 7.5 million cameras, doubling its figures in only three years.
Today’s dispo can be purchased and developed at the drugstore for a total cost of $30 for 20-odd photos. In 2018, Winsight Grocery Business reported $40 million in disposable camera sales—over three million individual cameras—from American drugstores alone.
The dispo’s appeal is easy to grasp: The device is portable and relatively inexpensive. It takes just two steps—wind the gear, press the button—to produce photographs glossy with grain, suffused with light.
The comeback of dispos is frequently attributed to young people’s belief in spontaneity as an avenue for authenticity. A Los Angeles Times feature includes teenage testimonials that the pictures are “candid,” “more authentic,” a way to more faithfully embody the present. The Daily Mail goes so far as to declare it a revolution: “Millennials turning their backs on the heavily-filtered worlds of Instagram and Facebook.” Each swivel and click suddenly becomes a subversion of the spoon-fed reproducibility of digital photography.
But dispos signify more than popular acceptance of imperfection. Just looking at a photograph reveals something more potent at play. They project the otherworldly—the vintage, the historied, the significant—onto our daily lives. Transforming their owners into both artist and subject, they make mundanity feel worthy of preservation.
From Duane Reade, the customer service representative transferred me to the stewardship of Sherri at Fujifilm. Addressing me as “sweetie” with extreme earnestness, she asked me to please describe the photographs my camera had contained. Without seeing her face, I could picture her expectant smile; I didn’t want to let her down.
“It’s been months,” I wavered over the phone. The whole interrogation was ironic, given that the original appeal of using the dispo to capture these moments was not knowing what the pictures looked like until I received them in print. I plumbed my memory for moments that I might’ve labeled photogenic, deserving of the dispo: “Asian teenagers in front of a brick wall. Asian teenagers in a staircase. A teenager in a mask.”
The ephemerality of the disposable had vanished; such was the price of this gracelessness.
Sherri asked me to confirm that the envelope’s twenty-five pictures of dogs didn’t belong to me. Incredibly, she shuffled through at least a dozen portraits to settle this, unwilling to believe the Irish Terrier frolicking in the sand was not mine. As I pondered the sheer devotion required to document one’s dog via dispo, Sherri continued, levelly: “Brown dog, with its tail up. No brown dog in yours?”
I found myself face-to-face with a hard truth: Someone else had ended up with my pictures. I imagined their gleeful anticipation intercepted at the sight of my friends’ faces, fuzzied in translation. The disappointed flip through the stack, the tsk at the inevitable light flares. Probably, the pictures ended up in the trash, glossy side down. If only it had been Buddy, I heard them saying. Sweet, perfect, tail-wagging Buddy.
Though the earliest disposables never gained widespread success, they were notably developed as an alternative for those who could not afford cameras otherwise. The 1886 “Ready Fotografer,” for example, cost 25 cents to the hand-held camera’s 50 dollars.
By the 1980s, the need for affordable camera alternatives no longer held. America’s postwar consumerism boom made easy-access consumption a top priority. Photography would no longer be a matter of economics—convenience was key.
Launched in 1986, Fujifilm’s QuickSnap was a runaway hit, its sales increasing steadily until 2004. Kodak soon followed with its own Fling and FunSaver cameras. Aimed at tourists or distributed as wedding favors, disposables were for special events you wanted to capture easily, without the burden of bringing more expensive equipment. Dispos were decidedly not for immortalizing scenes of everyday life, but, as Kodak’s camera name suggests, to be “FunSavers.”
For such an unassuming device, the dispo summoned a wave of forceful pushback. The affection for convenience it represented, a 1989 New York Times op-ed bemoaned, “has so permeated our lives that even those aspects that were once enduring—marriages, jobs, homes, beliefs, values, even heroes—are no longer regarded with any degree of permanence.” The film camera’s most avid users certainly lionized the gadget as a hero of sorts. Another Times dispatch, this one dating from 1987, clarified the stakes: “In the past the camera was one of our most important icons.”
For those apprehensive about the “throwaway 80s,” dispos represented the absolute relinquishment of responsibility. Cameras had become a phenomenon akin to disposable contact lenses or plastic razors—meaninglessly consumed, effortlessly discarded. These amateur photographers expressed no indebtedness to the device—the hero, the icon, the physical thing—that had made it all possible.
The commentators who took to the pages of the Times, though alarmist, did capture the enduring disconnect between process and product. “It just doesn’t seem right that we are being asked to make a permanent record of our life with a disposable item,” a 1987 write-up in the Los Angeles Times articulated.
Underpinning these anxieties was an acknowledgment that dispos had already altered how people recorded—and, therefore, lived—their lives. Rather than just capturing what was there, the dispo warped its subject, enveloping it with the filmy impermanence it then presented as reality.
Coming in the middle of a year of denial, it felt predictable, even trite, that I never experienced the escape my pictures had promised. But any sense of escape would have been fleeting in the end. There’s something deeply disorienting about it all—how the dispo at once brands itself as the arbiter of nostalgia, and yet its pictures are predicated on anticipation. Using a tool of the past to create an object for the future, we end up trapped between equally manufactured reminiscences and expectations.
Taking inventory of the lost pictures with Sherri, I noticed the veneration I’d developed for the recent past. But it wasn’t just me. Later, a friend offhandedly mentioned David Dobrik’s dispo phone app, which replicates the analog camera. It’s so imitative of the real experience that the pictures you take on your phone only become accessible the next day; of course, they have to develop first. Two weeks after its late 2019 launch, it hit a million downloads. Dobrik’s weeks-old relaunch of the app, its name changed from “David’s Disposables” to “Dispo,” is now estimated at a $100 million valuation.
The similarly popular app Huji splays a light flare across each picture and timestamps it either with the current date, or with the year swapped out for “1998.” Phone apps only come as acceptable substitutes for the dispo when they rely on gimmicks—when they impose reminders of the past that are so overbearing, they become cumbersome.
In many ways, the more familiar Polaroid served as the dispo’s predecessor. Introduced to the US in 2008, Fujifilm’s Instax Instant Camera similarly inundated the burgeoning internet with a torrent of overexposed photography. Unlike the dispo, the Polaroid prints each photo as soon as you snap it. Its trendy resurgence ultimately relapsed, proving its immediacy too easy to last, its process too transparent to pass as art.
Scrolling through Instagram, I’ve noticed amateur photographers—typically white teenage girls from New York or LA, usually affluent—posting batches of developed film on separate accounts, redefining the “finsta” as a “film Instagram.” The pages are populated with a rotating cast of friends; their bios read, “welcome to my life!”; their neat grids commodify the everyday. The otherworldliness of the dispo gives an excuse to take up space online.
Each developed picture comes as both permission and affirmation, a way to satiate our compulsion for documentation. I’d lived the moments stored in the camera, but I’d been counting on the dispo to make them real. It was my fourth camera of the school year, and while not a lot by some standards—the Los Angeles Times interviewee had taken 600 pictures of her senior year—it was definitely a significant amount for someone with not much to photograph besides a school hallway, generic stairwell, and a group of Asian teenagers.
To a certain extent, the dispo had become a medium through which I lived my time in high school. With it, I would connect the dots of the past few months, cobbling together cohesion for myself. Rather than a candid log, the dispos were a sort of affirming gift for my future self—tangible reminders that I had experienced things worth documentation.
Removed from the process I’d internalized as natural, I could see the lengths to which I had gone. I thought about the reflexive rituals that sustained the illusion of spontaneity. The swivel, the click.
For all this gesticulation, I still have a bedroom wall littered with disposables and a propensity to believe that my mundane life, too, is worthy as art.
It was almost New Year’s; months had drifted past. Over the phone, Sherri told me, her tone mothering and practiced, that I’d receive a compensatory QuickSnap for my troubles. “You can always try again,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said reflexively.
But she was right. I would try again, grasping at the balance between living and reflecting, the boundary between recording and imposing value. And maybe next time, I would finally get it right.