Published Sunday, January 20, 2002, in the San Jose Mercury News
Bay Area Lomographic Embassy:
(408) 271-5151, www.galleryad.com/lomo
A culture of photos, taken by surprise
RUSSIA'S PRIMITIVE LOMO CAMERA ENCOURAGES USERS TO LOOSEN UP WITH SPONTANEOUS, CASUAL SHOTS
BY JACK FISCHER
Some gadgets are born great, some achieve greatness, and some despite themselves have greatness thrust upon them. It is in this last category that we must place the humble Lomo.
A tiny point-and-shoot camera designed in the 1980s for the Soviet masses, the Lomo Automatic Compact seemed destined for the junk heap of techno-tchotchke history when the Soviet Union fell apart and citizens of the Eastern Bloc began to clamor for Western goods.
But thanks to a pair of adventurous former Viennese college students and an ex-vice mayor of St. Petersburg named Vladimir Putin, the boxy little Brownie of the Black Sea vacation set has become an international cult phenomenon. Today, the two former students sell hundreds of thousands of Lomos worldwide, countless independent Web pages are dedicated to its output, and an international subculture of ``lomographers'' gathers in some 60 cities worldwide to make pictures and hang out.
The only active ``Lomo embassy'' in Northern California is in San Jose. The first Lomo event here took place downtown last fall, when three dozen eager lomographers fanned out to make pictures for an international ``Lomo challenge.'' More recently, San Jose city government embraced lomography, when the Redevelopment Agency awarded a San Jose graphic design firm (the local Lomo ambassadors) a small contract to exhibit 40 4-by-8-foot collages of Lomo photographs at downtown construction sites.
Say what you will about old Soviet technology, but no Silicon Valley company ever created a device that was more popular 17 years after its creation than when it was new no small feat for an outmoded 35mm camera that never made it past Version 1.1.
At the heart of the fascination is the camera itself: A retro black box small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, it has an unusually wide angle lens and an electronic shutter and light meter that allow the user to make pictures with available light even at night. The pictures it produces tend to have ultra-saturated colors -- apparently a quirk of the lens coating -- and a hint of vignetting around the edges. Sometimes the result is a garden-variety photograph. But taken together, the camera's quirks sometimes create odd, slightly dreamy pictures that give new meaning to the term ``snapshot aesthetic.''
Still, at $150 for an idiosyncratic, low-tech camera, there had to be more. The other, equally essential element to the phenomenon has been a quirky, hard-to-describe culture engendered by the two students who started it all, Wolfgang Stranzinger and Mathias Fiegl.
The Lomo ethos, which essentially grew out of Stranzinger and Fiegl's circle of friends, asks only that you carry the camera with you everywhere, take lots of pictures and don't worry too much about the results. Indeed, Stranzinger has been quoted as saying he thinks that using the viewfinder is cheating. Among the 10 Golden Rules of Lomography posted at the Web site, www.galleryAD.com/lomo, are ``don't think,'' ``be fast'' and ``shoot from the hip.''
``In the beginning, there was never the idea to create a business out of it,'' says Ulli Barta, a childhood friend of Stranzinger's who watched the phenomenon unfold and is now the Brooklyn-based U.S. ambassador for the International Lomography Society. ``Mathias and Wolfgang were smart and funny. They always had these big parties in their apartment in Vienna and always liked to meet girls and have fun. Lomos were a good way to do that.''
The adventure began in 1991, when Fiegl found a used Lomo in a junk shop while on holiday in newly democratized Czechoslovakia. He brought it home, where he and his friend Stranzinger quickly discovered its peculiar personality and began using it to record everything they did. When they exhibited the results in huge collages, now called ``Lomo walls,'' hip Viennese began clamoring for their own Lomos.
Soon Fiegl found himself embarked on an energetic smuggling operation, visiting Eastern European countries and buying up old inventories of Lomos to sneak into Austria to sell.
``One time Mathias was caught at the Russian-Polish border with 400 cameras and he had to give half to border patrol to stay out of jail,'' Barta recounts, laughing.
By 1994, Stranzinger and Fiegl had formed the society and staged simultaneous exhibitions of 10,000 lomographs in Moscow and New York, each showing the other city's photographs. The two clever party boys knew it was past time to go legit.
Not that it was easy. When they received the first fax from Stranzinger and Fiegl seeking distribution rights, the apparatchiks of the camera's makers in St. Petersburg, the Leningrad Union of Optics & Mechanics (Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Ob'edinyeniye, or LOMO), assumed it was some smart-aleck college students making fun of them and ignored it, says Amira Bibawy, the self-described ``spin doctor'' for the Lomo society in Vienna. It didn't help, she notes, that the fax had been sent April 1.
But the two men were persistent. In 1995, they contacted movers and shakers who had been bitten by the Lomo bug in Vienna -- including several members of the Austrian parliament -- and lined up a delegation to accompany them to St. Petersburg on an informal trade mission.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the mayor of St. Petersburg had other commitments that day, and fobbed off the delegation on his then still-obscure vice mayor, a politician named Vladimir Putin. Putin -- himself a fan of the Lomo -- was savvy enough to realize that Western interest in a Soviet commodity was a good thing and convinced the optical lab's managers that their demand for cash from Stranzinger and Fiegl in U.S. dollars, up front was unreasonable. At the time, Barta recounts, the would-be entrepreneurs had a grand total of $2,000 between them.
Doubtless, Putin's powers of persuasion with the lab were enhanced by the fact that he was the former head of the KGB, and a significant amount of the lab's work had once been for that agency. Indeed, there had been persistent rumors in the press and elsewhere that the little camera originally had been intended for Soviet spooks and went to the public only when the spymasters rejected it. (Not so, says Spin Doctor Bibawy: The camera was always meant for the masses.)
Despite Putin's intervention, the directors of the Lomo factory, mastering the finer points of capitalism with alacrity, drove a hard bargain in giving Stranzinger and Fiegl the rights to the camera, and a device that once sold for $25 or $30 now costs $150. Of course, used Lomos can be found on auction sites like eBay for half that.
Today, Lomo society headquarters in Vienna has 50 employees and loosely oversees 60 Lomo embassies around the world, sponsoring competitions, running a busy Web site that posts the resulting images, and peddling photo-processing and a proliferation of Lomo-related products. In November, the guys introduced a line of underwear called Only Naked Is Better, festooned with images from Lomos.
The original Lomo Compact has been supplemented by two other cameras, the Action Sampler and the Supersampler, both cheaply made plastic novelties whose main virtue is having four shutters that fire sequentially, making four images on a single 35mm negative.
In keeping with Stranzinger's philosophy, the Super Sampler has no viewfinder.
Bibawy says the society has sold a million cameras over the past seven years, a quarter of them original Lomo Compacts and the rest samplers. Thomas Prantl, the head of business operations for Lomo in the United States, says worldwide production of the original Compact is limited to 36,000 a year, and they sell all they make. Celebrities from Yasser Arafat to David Byrne to the Dalai Lama have been seen carrying Lomos, although not even the spin doctor asserts that they are active lomographers, or take part in the various events.
In North America, where the first embassy opened three-and-a-half years ago in Brooklyn, lomography has not taken on the dimensions it has in Europe. There currently are active embassies in New York, Washington and Los Angeles as well as the one in San Jose. Barta says she is in discussions with people in Miami, Chicago and Toronto and has had inquiries from a dozen more cities. She says five or six U.S. events are in the works for this year. ``I'm very careful because I want to work with people who understand Lomo really well,'' Barta says.
Still, it has been two steps forward, one step back as the founders try to balance directing the movement, running a business and allowing lomography to retain the mixture of non-judgmental creativity and spontaneous social scene that made it popular in the first place.
They realize its popularity depends on keeping it a slightly anarchic, underground cult and, in any event, they don't seem to want it to grow at the expense of the special and elusive culture they've created. And since most of the ambassadors receive no pay, commitment levels and attention spans tend to vary. Embassies in San Francisco and Portland have sputtered and died.
Brian Eder, co-owner of Two Fish Design, the firm in San Jose that serves as the local embassy and which won the redevelopment contract to exhibit Lomo pictures at construction sites, says he e-mailed back and forth with Stranzinger for more than a year before Fiegl met with him on a trip through San Francisco and decided they were a good fit.
``When we met, we realized the point was exactly the same for them as it was for us: finding ways to bring creativity to your daily life,'' says Eder's partner, Cherri Lakey.
Two Fish's so-called Lomographic Sampling Games in September were one of five such events held in the United States last year. People could take part in visual scavenger hunts for various subjects from A to Z, or fill special picture albums the Lomo society distributes. Mercury News photographer Richard Koci Hernandez, a Lomo enthusiast, was named an international finalist for his album. He had been invited to participate in a boat ride from Vienna to Belgrade, but the Sept. 11 attack in New York prompted the society to postpone the plans.
But Eder and Lakey don't wait for competitions to gather local lomographers.
``I'll hear there's a dog show or something going on and I'll send out an e-mail telling people there's going to be a Lomo-rich environment let's go!'' Eder says.
In Vienna, Bibawy says, that's the spirit exactly.
``It's not an art thing that's above us somewhere. It's something we can do together. It's an open-ended concept.
``It,'' says the spin doctor, ``is a never-ending concept.''
Contact Jack Fischer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5440.
The Lomo lowdown
specs for the Lomo Automatic Compact camera
Dimensions: 107mm x 68mm x 43.5mm
Weight: 250 grams
Lens: Minitar 1
Focal length: 32 mm
Aperture settings: 2.8f to 16f
Focusing range: 0.8m to infinity
Shutter speed: 1/500 second to 2 minutes
Film: standard 35mm film, 25-400 ASA
Camera price: $150