The Legend of Lomo

Thunk, Don’t Think

thunk

That’s the sound of the shutter on a little Russian camera called the Lomo Compact-Automat. The manual-focus camera is about as elegant as a dump truck. It looks like it was carved from a bar of liquorice soap. Carved by a prisoner who planned to photograph his way out of the slammer.

“Thunk,” and the Lomo takes a picture.

No, it doesn’t take a picture. It greedily sucks an image inside like a soul-eating Dementor. This is a camera that treats colour like crack, like acid, like it can’t get enough until the film’s emulsion is bloated with the sort of electric Kool-Aid hues Ken Kesey would have seen watching Teletubbies on five tabs.

These days, though, the clumsy noise it makes is a thunk heard ’round the world.

That’s because, against all odds, the boxy little Lomo has become a global photography phenom, thanks to the Web, wild luck and two Austrian students. It’s spawned a noun — lomography — hundreds of online lomography galleries, a homebase, lomography embassies and international real-world gallery showings of the small, random, Technicolor dreamscapes that ardent lomographers snatch like they were plucking jump cuts from the air.

Look at too many lomographs in a row and you’ll think you just watched the trailer for Moulin Rouge. Thunk. Blink. Don’t think. That’s the way to take a lomograph.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.


The Lomo-Compact-Automat

The Lomo Compact-Automat was developed at the Leningradkoje Optiko Mechanitscheskoje Objedinenie (LOMO) optical company in 1982. The St. Petersburg (then Leningrad)-based firm makes devices for the Russian military and space programs. The camera’s sensitive light meter holds the shutter open for as long as it takes the camera to drink a scene in deeply and the 32-millimetre, wide-angle lens can grab a yawning swath at a glance. That lens was designed by a Russian military engineer — the Lomo-legendary professor, Michail Radionov. That wonderful Cold War name might have helped start the rumour that the Lomo Compact-Automat was developed for the espionage work of KGB agents.

The camera is certainly rugged. You could drive nails with it. You can even imagine it could take a bullet and keep on shooting. But the legend isn’t true. The Lomo Compact-Automat was really just a Volkswagen-esque portable camera that the company thought would catch on with Russian shutterbugs. Right instinct, wrong audience.

Russian camera hounds weren’t impressed with the quirky, heavy device, its 450 moving parts, its rapacious chromatic addiction and its lack of automation.

Lomo tried marketing the camera to buffs in Cuba, East Germany and Vietnam. But Communists everywhere blackballed professor Radionov’s brainchild. It didn’t help that both capitalism and fully automatic Japanese cameras started lapping at Russian shores in late 1980s. Things got so bad for the little Lomo Compact-Automat that, as 1990 arrived, Lomo started laying off the 150 Russian women who hand-assembled the camera.

Turns out what the Russians needed was a different kind of party.

From Volkswagen to Party Animal

That same year, two Viennese students, Wolfgang Stranzinger and Matthias Fiegl, stumbled across a Lomo Compact-Automat in a Prague junk shop. They fell in love with its wacky colour renditions and retro-Soviet look. The duo started using it to snag “shoot-from-the-hip” images at the clubs and parties they attended. The camera came into its own in the low, colourful light of those trancy venues. It wasn’t a Volkswagen after all. It was a party animal.

Stranzinger, who was studying law and Fiegl, a business student and Green Party worker, bought up and sold all the Lomo Compact-Automats they could find. That meant prowling European cities and buying the little camera on the black market in Moscow. Then, after they bought and sold about a hundred, they started mounting shows by the first European lomographers.

By 1994, they had sold 1,000 cameras, and their supply was running dry. So, just after all the Russian women had been laid off, the two students arrived in St. Petersburg wanting to become the worldwide exclusive distributors of the Lomo Compact-Automat, now on death’s door. One of the Russians they negotiated with was the then vice-mayor of the town, Vladimir Putin. Another was Ilya Klebanov, now a Russian Deputy Prime Minister but back then Lomo’s CEO.

“The two guys actually met for the first time when we went to see them,” says Fiegl. Remarkably, in 1996 Lomo rehired the workers, kicked production back in gear and the students became lomography entrepreneurs.

Bad English, Zany Hype

Since then, Stranzinger and Fiegl have hosted dozens of lomographic shows in which walls of hundreds of lomographs from all over the world are displayed. Lomographic “embassies” have sprung up in sixties countries and the pair have sold about 12,000 Lomo Compact-Automats a year (in Canada the cameras sell for $260 new, though they can be had on ebay for under $150).

But the real home of lomography is the lomo.com Website — a frenetic, almost impenetrable usability nightmare that revels in its fractured English and zany hype. It reads like a public-relations fever dream morphed to English from German by a half-deaf but excitable Swede.

LomoHome is a Lomographic showcase for adherents of the big L, a place for narcisisstic networking. The virtual metropolis of world Lomography, the Lomographers’ snug ... Get your own apartment in LomoHome, a free web-based site for Lomographers to show the world who they are, what they can do ... and THEIR MOST TREASURED LOMOGRAPHS. It’s also a place to catch the gen. on how and where, when and with whom to hang out in the realworld hometowns of lomographers on a global level.

In fact, according to Fiegl, an Irishman with a love for Shakespeare translates the copy. “I write it in German,” Fiegl says, “and it becomes a sort of Supertrooper English — you know, we try to push people to have fun, take a chance on something.” Fiegl says he wants to keep the spontaneity of lomography alive on the site. “We started this as a joke,” he says. “Now we are funding everything through the sale of the cameras and other merchandise. We are both artist and business."

Lomo.com hosts LomoHomes, which are sites where lomographers worldwide can post their images after sending their film into lomo.com for digital and traditional processing. Images can also be sent to cell phones, which is a little like writing your postcard message all in the place where the stamp goes.

Lomo.com is also planning an e-zine, Los LomoFiles, deliberately written in fractured English. “To keep it cosmopolitan [the e-zine is] in ingles bajo, otherwise known as Spanglish. It is being written by a bunch of Afro-Hispanic guys from all parts of the world, none of whom is a native speaker of the beautiful English language,” the folks at lomo.com explain. It’s all part of the democratization, spontaneity and globalization of photography that the lomo craze is about.

Black Russians and Blinding Red Light

Fortunately, the lomographs can also speak for themselves. The Lomo Compact-Automat is easy to use and is remarkably liberating. My first shots exhibited the trademark freaky colour saturation, and the camera does encourage experimentation and frivolity. At first, I suspected that I could get the same effects by blasting away with my digital camera, but I found myself getting quite attached to the little black Russian with its “tunnel vision” light falloff at the frame edges, blinding red-meter light and not-always-reliable focus. Every roll I got back from the supermarket photo lab was a little surprise package.


The SuperSampler

I also shot some rolls with the SuperSampler, a truly strange lomographic device that sports four panoramic lens that fire a half second after each other. Like the Lomo Compact-Automat, this camera takes regular 35-millimetre film, so the panoramas are tiny but fairly sharp. As a bonus, it produces images that will have the kids in the photo lab convinced they’ve broken the processor.

Pamila Matharu is becoming her Chinatown photofinisher’s best friend. The Toronto-based mixed media artist and photographer is working on a series called “Commuting.” These “Lomo walls” are large sheets of black foam-core covered with one-hour processing SuperSampler shots of cars, streetlights and asphalt lean against the walls of her Spadina Avenue studio.

She’s also organizing a Lomo exhibition of thirty-five artists in Toronto, hopefully for next year. “I went to a photo gallery show with my SuperSampler and people just loved it,” she said. “Everyone I talked to agreed immediately they wanted to do Lomo,” she recalls. “It’s very liberating, not so serious."

Matharu is an editorial and event photographer by vocation, and sees here SuperSampler as a release. “It’s Lomo yoga I guess. No deadlines, no pressure,” She’s so smitten by Lomo that Matharu wants to open Canada’s first Lomo embassy. “When I first discovered Lomo, I thought it was so crazy. I just wanted to be a part of it,” she says, blue snapshots of the Don Valley Parkway stuttering behind her.

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