A Camera That Really Opens Your Eyes

The headquarters of the Lomographic Society International, trendily located on the second floor of an elegant downtown Vienna apartment block, looks just like any other youthful e-business startup. Coffee cups and full ashtrays litter the computer area. Arty posters and flyers announcing events stud the cork notice boards. Hip young people bustle about, sporting dungarees and single earrings.

But while the ambience may be au courant down to the last caff latte, the product these folks are pushing is pure retro-kitsch: the Lomo Automatic-Compact, an archaic, Soviet-era Russian camera that is fast becoming a "must-have" fashion accessory for the new millennium's Beautiful People worldwide. "This is our baby," purrs Wolfgang Stranzinger, the 32-year-old president, as he pulls one of the black, laminated-metal boxes from a pile of presentation cases and caresses it as if he were a first-time father. "The Russians never realized what a gorgeous thing they had created."

Maybe not. But then again, aesthetic considerations were the last thing on the Russians' minds when they dreamed up the Lomo at the height of the cold war. A brainchild of the Leningrad Union of Optics & Mechanics (the Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Ob'edinyeniye, or LOMO), the camera was originally intended as an espionage tool for KGB field agents. Mad professor types at the top-secret think tank may have built the optics for the Soviet armed forces and space program, but they must have had an off day when they dreamed this one up. Russia's spymasters took one look at this clunky throwback to early photography and gave it a pass.

LOSING OUT. Instead, it was pressed into service as a cheap workhorse camera for the masses. But with the coming of capitalism, rising wage costs, and the influx of all those fully automatic Japanese models, the Lomo began to lose out. After 1989, the Leningrad factory started to reduce production. Output would cease entirely in January 1996--but not for long.

In 1991, meantime, Stranzinger and his pal Matthias Fiegl, then art students on vacation in newly democratized Czechoslovakia, picked up a Lomo at a Prague junk shop and began snapping away at the pastel-painted buildings and bustling cityscape. "The results blew our minds," recalls Stranzinger. "Some were just ordinary snapshots, but others had these rushes of blurred, intense color. Little details you'd normally miss seemed to jump off the print. It was our road to Damascus."

Disassembling the Lomo's 425 parts, the two discovered that the key to the camera's weirdness was its 32mm single lens, whose sensitive light meter kept the shutter open (sometimes for more than a minute in darkness) until the film was sufficiently exposed. "To a Russian guy on vacation by the Black Sea, who just wanted to take family snapshots, it might not have been quite what he was after," chuckles Fiegl. "But if you wanted to create art, it was mind-blowing."

Back in Vienna, the two began recording everything they came across, shooting from the hip, between their legs, and above their heads. "We decided that using the viewfinder was cheating," Stranzinger explains earnestly. Then, in 1992, the year they founded the Lomographic Society, they exhibited the results on huge collages--dubbed "Lomowalls"--to Vienna's underground movers and shakers, who soon began demanding Lomos of their own.

Two years later, after the Lomographic Society staged a huge simultaneous exhibition of 10,000 photos in Moscow and New York, each showing pictures of the other city's sights, Stranzinger and Fiegl had their first talks with the apparatchiks in St. Petersburg, as Leningrad was by then renamed. In April, 1996, the Russians agreed to reopen production. That meant reemploying the 150 babushkas who had been laid off. The St. Petersburg deputy mayor who gave the go-ahead was none other than Lomo enthusiast Vladimir Putin, now Russia's President.

ONLY DOGS. While the factory remains under the ownership of several Russian banks and the workers themselves, the Lomographic Society International has been granted exclusive distribution rights. Since 1994, Stranzinger and Fiegl have sold some 80,000 cameras worldwide, mostly over the Internet. Lomos currently go for $200. Financial results for 1999 are not in, but the pair expects to show revenues of $2.8 million, with a small profit. This year, they hope to sell an additional 20,000 cameras, 40% of them in the U.S.

Over time, Lomographers have begun to create their own subgenres. One guy pokes his Lomo through people's letterboxes. Another shoots only dogs; another "Lomographs" legs, human and otherwise. There's even an Underwater Lomography Society, whose members have waterproofed their cameras and snorkle their way around swimming pools and beach resorts in search of subjects. This bunch now boasts several members. Some Lomo addicts send their film to Vienna to be printed in a smaller-than-average (7 by 10 centimeters) size, which makes the colors more intense.

The Lomo also appeals to professional photographers who are looking to let their hair down. "The key to Lomography is to be open to the randomness of life, and forget about all the rules they teach you in college: one-third sky, two-thirds earth, all of that. It expands your consciousness," says Mike Mosby, a professional photographer who covers Central Europe for various North American publications, including Business Week.

Matt Carr, a fashion photographer and another early convert to the Lomo scene, agrees. "You become aware of everyday objects and gestures and their photographic possibilities," he says. "The thing is so small--no bigger than a cigarette pack--that you can carry it anywhere, and it's less obtrusive. People don't know you're photographing them, so they don't have time to pose."

Part of the appeal lies in the Lomographic Society's clever use of psychology, buttressed by a healthy dose of New Age psychobabble. "In an era of the decline of communities, people tend to seek alternative groups to join, evoking their creative potential without any loss to their individuality," public affairs officer Amira Bibawy explains in one of her PR handouts. "Hence, Lomography is a project of both cross-cultural unity and individualistic expression. It's an avant-garde response to an elite art that no longer meets the interest of the global village."

In other words, Lomo owners feel they've bought into a cultural clique. "I do feel like I'm in the know" acknowledges Mosby. "It's like I'm part of an exclusive club."

The trouble is, the more Lomos that are sold, the less exclusive the club becomes. And the signs are that the Lomo is edging nearer to the mainstream in both art and commerce--which it was originally intended to subvert, of course. Austrian TV, for example, aired a Lomo film project that employed Super 8 film cameras. In a self-conscious play for the youth market, the Vienna Tourist Authority and Austrian Airlines have sponsored Lomo events. Celebrities such as rock star David Byrne, Formula One race driver Michael Schumacher, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and even the Dalai Lama have embraced Lomography.

FOUR FRAMES. Meantime, the spin-offs are mushrooming. There are now Lomo cowhide bags and Lomo film, for instance. Then there's the "Action Sampler," a tacky little translucent plastic box with four lenses stuck to the front of the camera. Each time the user hits the shutter release, light exposes the film at intervals of a quarter of a second. The result is four frames on a single print.

A Camera That Really Opens Your Eyes (int'l edition)

But the spin-offs don't really matter. As Stranzinger points out, artists shouldn't have to starve in a garret for their art these days. Besides, much of their profit is plowed back into the biz. "We don't have much money. We spend most of it on keeping the faith alive," says Fiegl. "Every month, we're flying to some capital city or other, judging Lomo walls, handing out prizes."

Already, preparations have started for the Lomo Global Event in 2007, aimed at documenting 10 years in the life of the planet with millions of pictures mounted to form one huge Lomowall. "Anyone with a Lomo can contribute," crows Stranzinger. "It'll be a truly democratic event: For the people, by the people." Maybe the Leningrad scientists got it right after all.

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