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After completing the reading stage exclusively dedicated to the research project behind crafting this specific text, I realized the huge mistake I was about to make. The patriotic history behind the Ломо brand deserved to be written with a memorable soundtrack, the moody melodies of Кино. And it became curious to me that Кино means “Cinema” or “Film” in Russian. So, listening to anything else but Цой’s lyrics would be as stupid as reading Robert Frank’s “The Americans” without listening to BeBop Jazz and Kerouac’s take on the magnum opus of documentary photography.
Today, we’ll learn some interesting notions about the glitch happening between Russia and the history of photography. Yes, this is about the historical background of the now 30-year-old cultural phenomena we all now refer to as Lomography. Covered that, wouldn’t you like getting deeper into that color-shifting aesthetic we have all paid at least some attention to?
So, before Lomography became a fun category within contemporary photographic aesthetics, the Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Obyedinenie (Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association) had an interesting past. The LOMO’s business model was simple and ruled by the Soviets’ belief that prices were political hence costs were just fake.
Founded in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1914, the association was established as a French-Russian limited venture for producing cameras and lenses. Amidst WWI, it started designing and developing gunsights and it was nationalized in 1919. After the conflict, it resumed camera production in 1925. Beyond a range of consumer products, nowadays the LOMO company makes criminological microscopes, medical equipment, military-grade optics, and scientific research instruments; just like Fujifilm and Nikon. Contrary to the soviet creed related to costs being fake, now the company runs under a strict quality management system.
Perhaps the proudest project in which LOMO participated is the Large Altazimuth Telescope (better known as BTA-6 or Bolshoi Teleskop Alt-azimutalnyi). It’s a 6-metre aperture optical telescope at the Special Astrophysical Observatory located in the Zelenchuksky District of Karachay-Cherkessia on the north side of the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia. BTA-6 achieved its first astronomical image in 1975, making it the largest telescope in the world until 1990. It pioneered the technique, now standard in large astronomical telescopes, of using an altazimuth mount with a computer-controlled derotator.
Nevertheless, our large comrade has never been able to operate near its theoretical limits. Early problems with poorly fabricated mirror glass were addressed in 1978, improving but not eliminating the most serious issue. Despite those repairs, astronomical seeing is rarely good in the telescope’s location. It also suffers from severe thermal expansion problems due to the large mass of the mirror, and the dome as a whole, which is much larger than needed.
Back to photography, Lomography is the registered trademark of the manufacturer Lomographische AG, Austria, for products and services related to its photography technique. Obviously, the name is inspired by the Russian LOMO company which designed and developed the Lomo LC-A. And with this compact automatic 35mm camera, our history begins.
The beginnings of Lomography are dated around 1982 with the birth of the legendary Lomo Kompakt, better known as the LC-A camera. Back in the day, specific instructions were addressed to Mikhail Panfilov for copying the design of the Cosina’s CX-1 a Japanese 35mm viewfinder camera. The primary purpose of such a peculiar endeavor, making a small and simple camera to entertain the Soviets.
The main feature of this fun camera is found in the optics, a medium-wide angle 32mm focal length lens, ideal for conveniently capturing everyday life. This lens was largely copied from a Minotar 32 mounted on a Minox. camera by a soviet optical engineer. The result was a vibrant aesthetic produced mainly by the fast aperture (ƒ/2.8) cheap-made wide lens. The camera was born, and millions of them were produced and facilitated to the Societ people and friends, which included Cubans, East Germans, and the Vietnamese.
And rumor has it that it was also used by KGB spies to photograph secret plans and weapons. Something I think would have had serious implications for acquiring the best empiric evidence. I just have no reasons to doubt basic scientific premises from a society developed around a different economic model, based not on capitalism, but on the progress of the people. Although, I do consider it plausible since there’s some speculation that the LC-A was copied from a camera model that had the property of photographing in the dark; making it a good fit for espionage but maybe not for bright situations.
LC-A’s contact with the capitalist world was made possible by some Viennese students like Matthias Fiegl and Wolfgang Stranzinger, who took advantage of the holidays to visit Czechoslovakia (which was undergoing its democratization process). Two years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, the LC-A began its decline. In the market, there were cheap cameras from Asia taking over and Lomo Kompakt was only found in old-school collectives. They stumbled with the cameras at a swap meet and bought some just for fun. Starting then, the streets of Prague were the first places these cameras were unconsciously shot. They rarely looked through the viewfinder, and just took photos in a way that suggests little worrying about development expenses. After developing the shots back in Vienna, the serendipity was witnessed for the first time: focused and unfocused frames, all bright, saturated, and energized; those conveyed a feeling of explosive excitement, so they started up the Lomography enterprise we now know.
After that, they embraced the bold photographic look and the word spread out like ignited gunpowder or something equivalent to that dramatic cliché. Friends, family, acquaintances, everybody in Vienna wanted that quirky camera with a strong Soviet scent. Fiegl and Stranzinger began smuggling LC-A cameras from the former Eastern Bloc, and the Lomographische Gesellschaft came about as the aesthetic and cultural phenomena of nowadays.
A Cultural Phenomenon
Some decent momentum grew after the word of mouth in Vienna, and a couple of years later the hype was sufficient for a big exhibit abroad. The year was 1994, and the images were simultaneously showcased in both Moscow and New York. Several photographs from New York could be seen in Moscow and vice versa as well. The symbolic strength of this event is still notorious if we consider this happened a bit after the geopolitical tensions from the Cold War.
Around this time, the first Lomographic Embassy was founded in Berlin; giving rise to multiple Lomography Embassies across the globe. Despite their locations, these function as meeting points for local Lomography-related events, galleries, and walks; they also work as stores and photo labs. Nowadays, there are more than 800 across the globe, and they all follow-up with Lomo’s central office.
But before such popularity came about, a rather interesting story was cooked up behind the scenes. The Asian overflow of cheap cameras made an impact so hard on the former Lomo association business model, that they ceased the LC-A’s production. This pushed the Lomographic Society to lobby with Vladimir Putin, who was then somewhere between the head of the Committee for External Relations of the Mayor’s Office at that time and the first deputy chairman of the Government of Saint Petersburg. Beyond that, his responsibilities were on promoting international relations and foreign investments and registering business ventures. Naturally, he understood what that camera meant for the Lomo factory, and even for some of the people in St. Petersburg, so gave the order to start operating again and became the Godfather of Lomography.
From there on, the cultural phenomenon grew in an upscale, lomography.com was created, the aforementioned Lomoghraphic Embassies saw the light, international meetups were held, and new camera models like the Action Sampler, Super Sampler, and Pop9 were designed and produced. World awards and contests, LomOlympics, books and other publications, “Lomography Shop” stores, and more. Check all their sweet downloadables here!
The new website introduced a product shop, community interaction, special projects, activities, and services, plus the WorldArchive, which displayed a collection of amazing Lomographs from all different places seeing from the Lomographic aesthetic. In 1997, the first Lomographic World Congress was held in Madrid and puffed a LomoWall of +120 meters filled with more than 35,000 analog prints.
In 1998, the quirky Actionsampler was launched at Photokina; a 4-lensed plastic camera with some serious optical artifacts being presented at the largest photography convention in the world… The strange-looking camera was designed to take four sequential images in a single 35mm frame and was an instant hit. Sequential as in one exposed quadrant after the other, filling the shot with 4 slightly distinct Lomo compositions.
The Supersampler was launched in 2000, resulting in the first piece of equipment designed, manufactured, and patented by Lomography. Culturally, the “Queen of all Multilens Cameras”. Like the Actionsampler, this camera also took four sequential images in one 35mm frame. Simultaneously, a new community function was made available on the site; LomoHomes, or a space for the community to store all of their scanned shots for marking their own LomoWalls. Nowadays, the Lomography cultural phenomenon extends to multiple social media platforms across the web; from Reddit and Tumblr, to Instagram and YouTube.
The Voice from the People
One of the main sources grounding this written piece, is a documentary film from the BBC uploaded to YouTube 11 years ago (2001-11-22). Further from the entertaining visual piece, the comment section is highly polarized between those hating or loving Lomography’s way. Below, you can clearly see this happening under the color codes (zoom in if needed).
The Lomography Decalogue
Behind that stupid social polarization, resides the “Don’t Think, Just Shoot” motto. And backing that motto, a set of principles or rules were delivered to the people. 10 Golden Rules aimed to promote having fun while taking pictures and tossing any visual inhibition along the way.
They have a sort of decalogue order logic, but which core is rule number 10; “Don’t worry about any rules”. According to them, life is about remaining true to ourselves and not giving in to conforming rules and regulations. And if we are just miserable prisoners of our norms and preconceptions, then the following rules could be of some help.
Since we can’t plan or predict Lomography, we should take our camera everywhere we go. Listen to the inner voice of our deepest desires, the very best photos come from those moments of spontaneity and impulsiveness we can never plan for.
Use it day and night, Every second is a special one; every moment is the one. Our cameras are hungry for the thrill; whatever the weather, whatever day, and whatever the time. Keep shooting all the way.
Lomography is part of life, not an interference with it. Any camera is an extension of our minds. It sees what we see, it captures the feelings that we feel. We are not only photographing a situation, we are an essential part of itself.
Shooting from the hip, which is odd but guarantees candid natural results thanks to reducing uncomfortable reactions produced by lifting any camera to the eyes. Although, nailing composition is a crucial thing when seriously shooting from the hip, here any result is a valid one.
Approach the objects of your desire as closely as possible, get right to the bottom of things, and let your curiosity guide your path. Stop being a voyeurist and embrace being part of the things captured by your camera as well.
Don’t think, or simply shoot, feel, perceive and shoot, have fun; photograph whatever catches your eye, whatever attracts your mind. Anything alluring, astounding, exciting, and seductive.
And if you find it hard not to think, then be fast. The faster we act, the less chance we give our minds to start working the neural gears.
Be surprised, we don’t have to know beforehand what we captured on film. Only time will tell, and our memory certainly won’t remember composing our quick shots.
Afterward, so we get a roll developed by ourselves or by thirds, who is that person? What’s that flare flickering across the image? How did the colors turn out like that? Or what about that accidental double exposure? These and many other encounters are the happy accidents made possible to unveil thanks to the Lomography way. All these shots are a constant recording of life in all its deviance; anomalies, moods, shapes, colors, faces, and blurs.
I’ll be brief, Lomography could be seen as the result of having fun with extremely limited cameras, or as a way of imaginative thinking in which any photographic device could perform under a Lomographic way. Take what helps you the most and keep on shooting for the pleasure of recording light.