Kodak and Fuji Square Off: The Golden Age of Throwaway Cameras

A Challenge to the Kodak Monopoly

For most of the twentieth century, the Eastman Kodak Company was photography in the United States. By 1915, the company was producing 90 percent of the film consumed in the country. When people wanted to buy cameras, they bought Kodak. When they wanted film, they bought Kodak. When they wanted their film developed, they took it to Kodak. Along with companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Disney, Kodak was one of the century’s most iconic corporations. Sales reflected Kodak’s growing dominance of the market. In 1961, the company surpassed the $1 billion in revenue mark. As late as 1976, Kodak was commanding 90 percent of the market for film and 85 percent of the market for cameras. In 1981, the company hit another milestone, with sales topping $10 billion.

(re-scan)  Advertisement for Fuijichrome. Popular Photography, December 1983.

Advertisement for Fuijifilm from Fuji, sponsor of the 1984 Olympics, featured in Popular Photography, December 1983.

There was, however, an upstart on the horizon. The Japanese company Fuji Photo Film established an American subsidiary in December 1965. Originally a private retail supplier, Fuji Photo Film USA began selling film under its own name in 1972 at prices cheaper than those offered by the American photography giant. At the dawn of the 1980s, Fuji’s revenue was just a fraction of Kodak’s (about $2 billion compared to $10 billion), but its share was growing at an impressive rate. Still, Kodak continued to think little of its competitor. Even when internal analysts pointed out Fuji’s alarmingly high sales numbers, managers remained blind to the threat. One business reporter commented, “They didn’t believe the American public would buy another film.”

Kodak’s underestimation of its Japanese rival was a costly mistake. Although revenue hit an all-time high in 1981, that year would be remembered as one in which Kodak experienced its own “December seventh [Pearl Harbor Day].” With the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games approaching, Kodak was contemplating purchasing a sponsorship, but it regarded the price tag as too hefty. Fuji executives jumped at the opportunity, banking on the possibility that the publicity would “break Americans from the habit of reaching for the yellow Kodak box.” Their hunch was right. Within the first thirty months after its Olympics advertising campaign began, Fuji’s film sales in the United States jumped 30 percent.

Goliath Versus Goliath

Unfortunately for Kodak, Fuji’s sponsorship move was just the gambit of an aggressive attack. The relative weakness of the Japanese yen put Fuji in a position to consistently undercut Kodak’s prices. Conversely, in Japan Kodak was able to make little progress because of protective tariffs on foreign-made film. Finally realizing it was in a battle, Kodak reacted by pouring money into research. Integral to its plan was the adoption of a “me too” tactic when developing new products. In 1985, Kodak dispatched a research and marketing team to Tokyo, where its members identified Fuji products that were ripe for imitation. As a result of this tactic, Kodak introduced a company-high one hundred products in 1987, among them a disposable camera.

Realizing there were no low-end viewfinders available on the Japanese market, Fuji decided to remedy the situation with new introductions, including a disposable, outdoor-use (i.e., no flash), plastic camera that took twenty-four exposures on 110 film. Simple and small, it consisted of a film cartridge, plastic casing, lens, shutter, and plastic manual film advance. To reduce the possibility that the Japanese public would not trust a cheap, throwaway camera, they named the product Utsurundesu—“It really takes pictures.” Introduced in 1986, the camera was one of the most popular new products of the year. Given the success of the Utsurundesu in Japan, Fuji decided to launch its disposable camera overseas. During the first two weeks of February 1987, industry analysts in the United States learned that Fuji had increased the volume of production of its disposable cameras from one million a year to somewhere between three and four million. Rumors circulated that those cameras were intended for the American market.

Products debuted at conference. Popular Mechanics, November 1987.

Products Fuji and Kodak debuted at the 1987 Photo Marketing Association trade show , including the Quicksnap and Fling. “Sharper Images,” Popular Mechanics, November 1987.

Having cast off its complacent attitude, Kodak sprang to action. Executives guessed Fuji would likely debut its disposable at the Photo Marketing Association’s annual trade show, which opened on February 22, 1987. Although its plans were only in the idea stage, Kodak preemptively announced it would design a disposable camera, due to be released later that year. The announcement came on February 17th, just hours before Fuji had planned to make the same announcement. Carl Chapman, the president of Fuji Film USA, remarked that he was “surprised by the timing.” Some commentators were more explicit in their criticism, especially after Fuji did not announce a 110-film camera as anticipated, but a 35 mm camera. Yet others took it as a sign that the once sleeping giant had wakened. One financial analyst observed, “It’s kind of like [Kodak’s] vowed never again to let Fuji beat them.”

“Disposable Cameras! What’s Next?”: Public Reaction to the Quicksnap and Fling

Modern disposable cameras made their debut in the United States that spring with the introduction of the Fuji Quicksnap, which was priced at 10 dollars. After rushing its version through development, Kodak answered the Quicksnap with the Fling. Loaded with 110 film, the Fling was smaller and less expensive, priced at $6.95. Kodak hoped the Fling’s lower price would compensate for its lower-quality film. However, it soon became clear that the Fling 110 was not competitive, and a 35 mm-version was released in early 1988. In turn, Fuji countered with the Quicksnap Flash, the first disposable with a built-in flash. Recommended for outdoor use and indoor use between three and ten feet from the camera, the Quicksnap Flash set the standard for the design of disposable cameras going forward.

P.C. Vey. The New York Times, 31 May 1987.

Drawing by P.C. Vey. “Keep the Picture, But Toss the Camera,” The New York Times, 31 May 1987.

Industry analysts reacted positively to the concept of disposable cameras, recognizing that “any pictures taken with a disposable camera are pictures that would not have been taken otherwise.” Yet those outside the industry expressed some confusion and concern over the wedding of photography and disposability. Even though the Quicksnap was branded with the slogan “film with a lens,” clearly prioritizing the former over the latter, consumers were apparently unsure of whether to look for the cameras in the film aisle or the camera aisle. To some, disposable cameras in principle made little sense. For Robert Lachman of the Los Angeles Time, the most off-putting aspect of disposable cameras was their inherent interplay between permanence and temporality. “Somehow,” he observed, “it just doesn’t seem right that we are being asked to make a permanent record of our life with a disposable item.” Could something disposable be counted on to produce objects valued for their permanence, their ability to preserve memories for posterity?

Moreover, the introduction of disposable cameras encouraged people to reassess what it meant to own a camera in the first place, highlighting the difference between owning a camera and using a camera. Most “disposable” consumer goods on the market were personal care products—diapers, feminine products, razors, and even contact lenses (which also made their debut in 1987). Cameras, on the other hand, were more akin to small appliances than personal care items. Traditionally they had required an investment, both in terms of cost and maintenance, and people expected them to last. As one journalist put it, “Disposable razors are one thing, but will anyone buy a throwaway camera?”

New York Times. 17 September 1989

Newspaper article by Maxine Karpin. “Disposable Society Jettisons Values Too,” The New York Times, 17 September 1989.

Previously people had bonded with their cameras, taking them along on the most important occasions of their lives and using them as a physical extension of their body to capture what they saw firsthand. For one writer, Kodak’s and Fuji’s announcements epitomized the lost connection between people and their possessions that was taking place “in an age of throwaways.” He lamented, “In an earlier age, products and relationships were as enduring as the values that built this nation. Now, many of those old values themselves have become obsolete.”

Despite these reservations, enough Quicksnaps and Flings were sold in 1987 and 1988 for camera companies to know that disposability was a concept worth pursuing.  Originally these companies thought single-use cameras were a niche product, but disposables consistently outperformed expectations. In 1987, only 3.3% of American households had used disposable cameras. Within five years, this number grew to a little over 20 percent, and by 1989 a veritable “disposable camera craze” was said to be taking place.  Disposable cameras sold in the United States climbed from 3 million in 1988, to 9 million in 1990, to 21.5 million in 1992. Kodak had made contracts with theme parks across the nation to exclusively sell its disposable cameras, and Fuji found similar opportunities. By the early 1990s, it was becoming increasingly common for brides and grooms to supply their guests with disposables. Soon enough they found their way into hotel mini-bars and vending machines as well.

“Better Pictures, More Often”: Why Go Disposable?

Earlier disposable cameras like the Photo-Pac were marketed to people who could not afford cameras. This aspect was largely irrelevant in the 1980s.  Instead, as camera companies predicted, disposables appealed greatly to impulse buyers—people who came across a photo opportunity they were not expecting—and travelers. A biographer of Muhammad Ali, for instance, recalled how people would see the legendary athlete and dash to the nearest drug store in search of a camera.

Illustration of skier with camera, Ski magazine, November 1988.

Drawing of skier in peril with conventional camera. “Cheap Shots,” Ski magazine, November 1988.

Travelers purchased them when they had either forgotten their cameras or purposely left them behind.  In situations when people forgot their “good camera,” Popular Photography recommended that they purchase disposables like Minolta’s aptly titled Oh My Gosh I Forgot the Camera. They also agreed with the question Fuji rhetorically posed in an advertising campaign—“Why risk your camera when you can use ours?—and advocated the purchase of disposable cameras to avoid “ruining your equipment, destroying your film, and lousing up your exposures.” Users recognized that there was a tradeoff between convenience and cost on the one hand, and quality on the other. But for those who had evaluated their needs and determined that they were interested in owning “snapshots, not fine art,” disposable cameras successfully struck that balance.

Historically, one of the most important selling points of the disposable camera was its ease of use. This was especially true of the modern disposable camera. Describing disposables as the ideal camera for “technophobes,” one reporter wrote, “Photography has become enormously complex since George Eastman came out with the first Kodaks in the early 1900s. Film speed, zoom lenses, flash fill: who needs it? Many people have given up, convinced the whole process of getting a good picture is just too complicated.” It may be surprising then that the course disposable cameras took after 1987 was towards more complicated designs and additional features. This was a result of camera companies realizing there were profits to be made through expanding disposables into special-purpose photography. Most people, for instance, do not go diving or snorkeling often enough to warrant buying an underwater camera. (Just to rent an underwater camera in 1992 cost $100 a roll.) By creating specialized disposable cameras, Kodak, Fuji, and their competitors provided (and in some ways likely created) an outlet for users’ creativity.

Accordingly, a litany of specialized disposables hit the market between 1989 and 1993. Kodak led the way in 1989 with the Weekend, a plastic-encased, all-weather 35 mm camera capable of taking photographs as deep as twelve feet underwater, and the panoramic Stretch camera. Fuji quickly responded with the Quicksnap Tele, which featured a 100 mm telephotic lens. In 1993, Kodak and Fuji battled once again, with Kodak introducing the Funsaver Portrait camera, and Fuji introducing a camera with 3D capability. Commentators pointed out that complicating disposable cameras in some ways defeated their purpose. A Florida woman who wrote to Popular Photography in 1990 denounced the companies for engaging in a “frivolous game of overfeatured disposables.” These specialized line extensions did represent a shift away from the bare-bone appeal of disposables; nevertheless, they were very much in keeping with what had always been one of disposables’ key selling points: providing an answer to people looking to treat themselves to a temporary technology for special situations.

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