The Lure of Lomography

by Jim Cornfield

Courtesy of Lomography

The Belair X 6-12 allows 6x12 extra wide shots (six shots per roll) here using Lomography 120 X-Pro 200 film on a sunny day to achieve contrast and color saturation.

May 09, 2013

I doubt any photographer could stroll past one of the world’s 32 Lomography storefronts (New York City, São Paulo, Beijing, Milan and Istanbul, among others) without feeling the urge to wander inside for a look.

That whim overcame me not along ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of L.A.’s trendy West Hollywood shopping district. Out of curiosity, I poked my head into Lomography’s Southern California headquarters and discovered a continuous montage of little snapshots on one main wall, along with table displays featuring tidy rows of point-and-shoot plastic cameras in a plethora of pastel colors, as well as accessories, stacks of film boxes (that’s right, film) and trays of photo-related promotional items. At the check-out counter, a stack of newsprint-style brochures articulate this riddle with a frank, bold-faced headline: “What the hell is Lomography?” I decided to find out.

The global phenomenon known as the Lomography Movement celebrates a return to analogue, photochemical imaging—in short, the encore performance of film. In a world dominated by the digital image, and the practically limitless creative potential  of computer-based after-capture technology, the idea that film is ready for a major comeback seems dubious to most of us. Still, the “wet world” retains its devoted adherents—some of them serious commercial and fine-art shooters held captive, I suspect, by the epicurean appeal of an elegant, time-honored process. Others, on the other hand, might just be drawn to the idiosyncrasies of film and the quaint charm of the time-consuming, suspenseful wait for pictures to emerge from the darkroom. And yet others might want the authentic version of the esthetic that so many  photography apps and digital filters attempt to emulate. Either way, Lomo buffs seem to hold steadfast to the movement’s mantra, “The future is analogue!”

Lomography’s Cultural Footprint

If you’re shaking your head at this point and thinking, “fad,” think again.  Lomography has actually been around since the early 1990s, when some Austrian students discovered, and began importing, the movement’s cornerstone product, a spartan little Russian camera called the Lomo Kompact Automatic. By industry standards, it was practically Stone Age in technical refinements, and almost laughably simple to operate—especially if all you wanted was quirky, occasionally soft and almost always vignetted images. Odd as it seems, this look resonated with a lot of consumers and continues to do so. Today, the Lomographic Society has more than one million registered members, many quite passionate about the funky esthetic of the analogue snapshot and—what seems equally important—the visceral and totally retro experience of interacting with the world using one of the odd little Lomo cameras (see “Lomo Cameras: A Sampler” at left) that descended from the original Kompact model.

To dispel any lingering suspicions that Lomography is only for dilettantes and weekend dabblers, it’s important to point out that, early on, serious artists such as Robert Frank, photojournalist Lyle Owerko, and Russian concept artist Slava Mogutin all embraced the eccentrities of this offbeat imaging style. And Lomography is finding its way into the real world workflow of serious wedding and portrait shooters.

Lomo at the Wedding
Sean Flanigan is a creative, energetic 31-year-old wedding photographer based in Tacoma, Washington. As a graduate of the Seattle Art Institute’s photo program, he’s been in business since 2005 doing event photography, conference coverage, occasional workshops and averaging around 30 wedding assignments per year. Flanigan’s work style matches the profile of other young shooters using the basic tools of our craft—mostly pro DSLRs—to work their way up the success  ladder. Then the Lomo camera entered his life.  

“I found Lomos when I was in school,” Flanigan says. “They weren’t sophisticated, but they were great for experimentation. You can fiddle with the frame advance, shoot half-frame images, do double exposures, and do it all very quickly. Plus, it’s easy. You can basically turn your brain off with a Lomo camera. It’s very reactive photography. And it’s fun.”

In Flanigan’s competitive wedding market, there’s a constant need to up your game against fellow talented photographers. “Experimentation is more accessible with digital, and it induces people to push their creative boundaries to attract new clientele,” he says. Flanigan tried pushing his boundaries in the direction of analogue, and Lomography was an ideal tool. “I thought it would be a fresh idea to introduce a snapshot esthetic into my wedding work. The imperfections give a vibrant sense of spontaneity to these important moments. I showed a few samples to some clients, and they all went for the idea. Now I shoot 10 or 12 rolls on Lomo cameras in addition to my regular digital coverage. There’s no post-production with these, outside of getting very high-res scans to include in the finished package. So far, I’ve had really positive feedback, but you have to be selective with the clients; a lot of mine have been based in creative fields, like graphic arts and music. They’re a little more daring, and appreciative of Lomo’s little eccentricities—the light leaks, color shifts, etc. I wouldn’t pull one of these simple, snapshot cameras out of my bag in front of a bride who wasn’t expecting it.” 

Lomo Portraitist
Lomography helped 29-year-old New York portrait photographer Mike Allen “baby-step” his way into analogue shooting from the digital world where he began his career. Once, as an experiment, he adapted a rough plastic Lomo lens to a high-end digital camera. The moody seascape that resulted would eventually sell to a Saudi princess for $15,000. Allen became intrigued with lomography from that moment. He began working with film instead of digital, and never looked back. “I discovered the medium of film because of Lomography,” he says. “There seems to be more realism in film, in the grain and the tonal quality, and the rough imaging technology in Lomo equipment all contribute to this. Frankly, I think in many cases, digital can suck the soul out of a photograph.”

A native Calfornian, Allen moved to New York after launching his portrait business in Los Angeles, where he’d become a loyal customer of the West Hollywood Lomography store. His first Lomo camera was the original LC-A, which became his “walkaround” companion. “It was compact,” he remembers, “completely non-invasive whether you were doing a grab shot or setting up a portrait.” He played with various film emulsions at first, and became fond of using Kodak reversal films, which he’d have cross-processed during negative development. “I like the quality,” he explains, “but the image always has to be scanned down the line. To get control of those blue and green color artifacts in cross-processing, I learned early the value of owning a top-of-the-line scanner.” He sold all his digital cameras before moving east, but invested in a Hasselblad X-5 scanner that can output images at up to 8000 DPI. The X-5 allows a broad range of  image control and extraordinary enlargement capability—the image he sold to the princess was a 40 x 60-inch fine-art print. Often, the other control capabilities of a good scanner make it worth the investment. A built-in color wheel, for instance, permits color adjustments, without the need for ever taking the final image into post-production. Allen’s refined technique with lomographic tools now allows him to do entire jobs using Lomos alone—particularly casual location portraiture—where the signature look of lomography gives his images a distinctive “authentic air.” 

Lomo cameras are objects of Pop Art unto themselves. There are currently 150 different models; we present a smattering of some of the most popular below:

Top of the line: the new Belair X 6-12, a 6 x 12 auto-exposure medium-format camera capable of three shooting formats and multiple exposures.

The Classic: The popular Diana F+ point-and-shoot with 75mm lens and built-in flash. Uses 120 format film for square images.

The Grandfather: The LC-A, a direct descendant of the original Lomo camera.

The Oddball: The strange-looking Supersampler is a sequential imaging Lomo model that uses 35mm film.


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