But Rich! You always struck me as a ‘new-age-fun-with-a-vintage-feel’ kind of guy! Didn’t you work in a camera shop? Haven’t you got like at least four cameras, some of which could be termed ‘quirky’ or ‘retro’? Isn’t one of them a camera from the company: Lomographic Society?
Yes to all of the above. (Except the first one) I blame working in a camera shop, and innate nerdiness for developing a relatively short lived period of gear lust. Photography being one of the areas I think is quite easy to develop (ha) gear lust in, especially when it comes to vintage (ie: expensive, old and often more trouble than they are worth) cameras. So many features, so many numbers, so many brands, makes, models, ranges… so much obtuse nerdy tech history tied up with obtuse art-nerdy history.
A very 20th century artform. Journalism, travel, war, documentaries, scandal, fashion, glamour. All these things rush through ones head when looking at the price of a Leica or Hasselblad in the back of Amateur Photographer (or Amateur PORNographer as we used to call it! Fnar fnar. The other way of passing the time was ‘manual’ photoshop, cutting our heads off photos and putting them on wildlife pics. Yeah, man. Anarchy.)
An artform that hasn’t “gone” per se, but has become as day to day as, scribbling, or humming, or doing a little dance at home with the curtains drawn. Quote of the day: Photography is now like humming. This isn’t a bad thing. Hooray for putting “the tools of production in the hands of the workers” I say. Why shouldn’t everyone have easy access to photography nowadays? It’s only going to advance the field surely, if more people can have a go. And furthermore, lets bear in mind the distinction between the straight documentarian-style uses of photography and the more explicitly ‘this is art’ uses of photography. Cameras are substantially useful tools, if nothing else. When they break, they can be used as hammers, or even memory card holders.
Hmmm. Photography, and it seems, a lot of creative endevour (depending on your personality) are open to the dread ‘gear lust’, in which you get so caught up in the material possession of better gear that you forget to actually go out and practice your art. The ‘going out’ part is doubly important for photography. Or you dismiss anything made differently to the “proper” way: the endless analogue v digital debate (or debates). Now, the methods and tools you use clearly do affect your efforts, but they also have a subtext of their own. Easy example: the sepia effect gives the subtext of ‘historical’ because thats “how photos used to look”. But now anything is possible in post production, and the standards of cheap gear have rapidly caught up (I’m not saying they are objectively as good) with the high end.
See the comparison of iPhone 4S (8 megapixel stills, £300-400ish) vs Canon 5d Mark II (21 megapixel stills, £2000-3000ish depending on lens). Both can shoot HD video at 1080p. I don’t quite know why they chose such boring subject matter in the test video below.
I do remember being astonished when the 5d Mark II came out and seeing the quality of video. I had always kind of assumed that ‘still photo taking’ and ‘video taking’ devices would merge into one eventually, but I generally thought that camcorders would be the ones that ‘won’. The technology itself doesn’t care. It’s good at both, call it whatever you want. The rational part of our brain just wants to divide and categorize these things! Apologies, I digress. Back on topic:
Can we at least blame Lomography for it’s part in this? Or whatever the hell that app is called on people phones that makes things look like they were taken on a Polaroid, or some other old-ass camera?
I’m not innocent in these matters of course. I’ve taken arty pictures of rust. I’ve used black and white film, because… well, that’s what proper photographers do innit?. Likewise with slide film. I wandered around at night, and around abandoned buildings, because that’s what being edgy is about. Pretty much as soon as I left aforementioned camera shop, I pretty much instantly stopped using film because jumping knackers that shit is EXPENSIVE. That’s my level of integrity. That’s how important film was to me.
Lomography, I think, could be considered one cohesive body of work, because it has a fairly unified aesthetic:
Low fidelity, spontaneous, naturalistic. This is what we mean when we say Lomography, even if we dislike using a brand name to describe some art. This carries over to the design of the cameras and accessories themselves, they look awesome, especially when compared to the (usually god awful) standard ranges you will find in any electronics retailer.
(side note: how is the ipod held up as a masterpiece of design? One: the marketing budget was probably astronomical, but Two: all other Mp3 players look, at best, unremarkable. Electronics companies primary aim is tech specs, reliability, price: not making it look pretty)
It’s easy to look awesome in a sea of generic crap. I say generic crap: but this is cameras being ‘normal’: being ‘tools’, being devices… no one cares what a DVD player looks like? Or a hammer? No one cares that ‘the pencil’ hasn’t advanced or changed as a tool in the last millenium. (Though some nerds will always have their preferences for ‘iconic’ things like Blackwing pencils and Moleskine notebooks. Idiots, in other words.)
Each camera generally has its own unique feature (gimmick?) such as a fisheye lens, a coloured flash, taking four photos on the same frame. Or perhaps they revel in their own mechanical failures, like light leaks, rubbish plastic lenses, double exposures… the emphasis is heavily on style, not technical reproduction. You can already see the sweaty-palmed appeal to a young, naive art school wannabe. IT DOES ART. Even the packaging, and accessories play up to this image. So much cooler than going down a high street retailer and buying a soulless grey lump from an electronics giant.
How did this company, and its associated influence come to exist?
The short version is that a couple of Viennese students picked up a cheap, badly made Soviet camera while travelling, fired off a load of spontaneous rolls of film, which were greeted with enthusiastic praise by their friends. Obviously the defects in the camera gave the prints a different style and character, compared to a ‘technically correct’ reproduction. The camera in question was the Lomo LCA, which had been in production since the 80’s as an affordable product for the Russian market. As the Soviets were wont to do at the time, it was effectively a reverse-engineered knock off of a Japanese model (of the Cosina and Minox persuasion). I’m sure the same could be said at the time for cars, military equipment, electronics. If you can’t beat em, copy em.
Obviously, it was possible to pick up bags of these “technically rubbish” cameras at a cheap Soviet price, and begin selling them on to Westerners. The Lomo LCA is still very much their flagship model, even at one point having to convince the Russian producers to keep going: presumably in the face of a reducing local market, as the Russians decided they’d rather use something cheap, reliable and instant: like a camera phone. Meanwhile, in the West, we decided we’d rather have something expensive, unreliable and slow, like a Lomo! They currently sell for between £200-300 from Lomo.
I can only speculate but based on a similar type of camera that I own (An Olympus XA2: small, leaf shutter, fixed lens, some manual control) that I picked up second hand for £25, (even came with the flash) that some serious marking-up is going on here! Even taking this into account, the XA2 (and I’m sure other, similar models) can objectively ‘win’ over the Lomo hands down: the lens is great, the body is solid, the mechanics will probably last another couple of decades. (Maybe even longer as it is sitting collecting dust) If I want to reduce the fidelity of it’s images for ‘That Lomo Look’, I can cover it in vaseline or even buy another four or five, smash them up a bit, and STILL be better off than the fool who paid over the odds for a Lomo. Or photoshop, photoshop, photoshop. (Or free open-source equivalent, or even the web based one)
And what are the much loved aesthetic features of the Lomo anyway? The lens has noticable vignetting (dark bits in corners) and ‘unpredictable’ colour saturation and contrast. You can put a flash on it. You can do manual, long-shutter exposures. It’s a marginally wider-than-standard 32mm. lens. Wooooo. Having made that sarcastic ‘woooo’ sound, I will say that a lot of compact cameras (somewhat understandably) remove features in order to make them easier to understand and use: which can be frustrating for those of use who like to tinker around but also want something pocketable. So we can at least celebrate the Lomo for having some manual controls. Moving on…
Their next major “coup” was distributing the Actionsampler model: the one that takes four shots on one frame of film. No actual new product here, various Chinese made designs had been kicking around for several years before Lomo got a hold of it: often sold very cheap purely as a novelty camera, literally a few pounds/euros. Slap some funky paint on it, build up your indie cred and flog em on! £20-30 for one of these. I wouldn’t be surprised if the unit price from the factory was actually under a pound. They are practically disposable cameras, sometimes without even the benefit of a flash. Or the free processing that usually comes with.
A friend brought an Actionsampler for a trip to Amsterdam: took a few rolls, all came back blank, and it broke after a few days of use. Sure, there may be other reasons for this: nevertheless the rough n ready, freewheeling adventure it claimed to be designed for killed it. No, you can’t just whack any old film in there. There’s no flash, not even a crap one that breaks easily.
Reliability IS cooler than coolness, man.
More current models that have been released are the Fisheye (the one I got) the Holga and the Diana. Now, the Fisheye I’m not sure about, it might actually be an original design, but both the Holga and the Diana are reproductions of now-defunct models. Some would claim not even as well made as the (already pretty terrible) originals, but I couldn’t say. All of them revelling in their cheap plasticky colourful-ness.
I picked up the fisheye as a cheap alternative to buying an actual fisheye lens, which are hella expensive. After shooting perhaps 4-5 rolls of film, and still gulping at the heavily-staff-discounted (if not done on the sly for free) printing costs, I realised that perhaps fisheye shots get a bit samey after a while. Then the flash broke and it now sits unused in my gear bag.
Maybe a further advantage of getting a proper fisheye on a proper camera is that you can TAKE IT OFF AND STOP USING IT OCCASIONALLY.
Whereas the Lomo was a product of the Russians at least trying to make a technically good camera, the Diana is explicitly a poor design, initially meant for novelty/toy use. The Holga may have aimed at a particular level of quality, but being mass produced to suit the modest budget of a 1980s Chinese snapper obviously left it with “some” flaws. Furthermore, at least the Lomo is relatively dinky and solid, whereas these are fairly oversized super-cheap plastic bodies waiting to get damaged.
Go! Run! Take photos and be free! *drop* *smash*. Oh, maybe I should have just used my phone instead. Bugger, this film came back blank because light leaked through the body. Maybe I only spent £60 on the camera, but now I’ve spend £100 on film and got about two good shots. It’s hard to be spontaneous when it’s costing me 50p a frame in film and developing! Have I got my own scanner to share these online?
One further contradiction (aside from the vomit inducingly huge mark ups in price) is that while many (all?) Lomography-branded models espouse a rough and ready attitude, shoot first think later etc etc.. many of them (the Diana and the Holga particularly) come with a pretty astonishing range of accessories: such as different lenses, flashes, remote releases, different film size adapters and so on. Doesn’t this run counter to the free and easy ethos? Isn’t this beginning to sound like ‘your grandads’ style of photography? Numbers, and apertures, and adaptors, and filters, and colour correcting… all in an effort to do things in the RIGHT way: not the most spontaneous after all.
Would you buy a wide angle lens, a flash and tripod for a disposable camera? Apparently it seems you would. And continue to revel in the cheap, spontaneous naturalism of it all.
Anyway. Put aside the actual technical moaning and discussions about what counts as art, and think about what Lomography means as a force in our culture. Yes, I bought into it for a time. Maybe a part of me still thinks cross-processing, sprocket holes and Polaroid film is still cool. For the record I’m not saying, by defintion, that it’s NOT cool… it just appears to represent a desperate grab for meaning in an otherwise “cold, meaningless” digital world. The resurgence of vinyl, knitting, analogue synthesizers: it all skirts a bit close to the trend laid down by Lomography for me. Music with an abundance of ukeleles and xylophones. New folk music. Twee. That Kirsty-whatever-“Homemade home” sap. REAMS OF ANEMICALLY “CUTE” BACK OF A SCHOOL NOTEBOOK ILLUSTRATION HORSESHIT. Brand new designer headphones that look like they are 40 years old. Make do and mend. Keep calm and carry on. NOBODY LOVED CASSETTE TAPES THAT MUCH WHEN WE ACTUALLY USED THEM. None of these things are inherently evil, but they highlight how desperate we’re becoming for authenticity, and how easily duped we can get. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on it, is any creativity better than no creativity? We can’t just run away from all the things happening at the digital frontier (ponce) and pretend it’s not happening.
Does it jar slightly to watch Polaroid cameras and film slowly go out of business, then get resurrected by a company like the Impossible Project? We all knew Polaroid film was pricey when it was #1 a frame, now it’s in the region of double that. I’m not saying they are overcharging, but I don’t know why anyone would really buy it. What about the popular ‘instagram’ app (and similar) for phones that adds filters to make your pictures look like they were taken on lo fi film? Weird? Take one step deeper into the simulacra to find the site telling you how to recreate the instagram look with real film and cameras. Really faking something that fakes something real? Maybe the thing about rebelling against the ‘soulless digital revolution’ is that in running away from it, you define yourself only by it: and effectively rely on it as much as those who use it. Everything changes except the avant-garde.
Problem is, idiots like me and you spend so much effort bollocking on about what’s authentic, real, legitimate that we forget it’s ALL an artificial choice, none of it matters outside of the end product. How can you poke fun at social norms, by paying more attention to them than anyone else?
I may grow tomatoes from time to time, but the ones in cans are handier and way less effort. I’ve used film and digital cameras: film is too expensive and unreliable for mass use, digital is faster, cheaper, more convenient. Clothes made in third world countries are good value for the first world consumer. Let’s not pretend that these ‘authentic’ accoutrements are changing anything below the surface. Like it or not, mass produced stuff is responsible for a lot of good in the world. Nearly everyone can afford beans, for one thing. So, if anything, this is a surface-level rebellion. A rebellion of style over substance.
No worries, as long as we can sell you stuff, you can call it whatever you want: THE MORE AUTHENTIC THE BETTER.
You won’t get back to any kind of ‘authenticity’ by going after it as a style. It’s just you, me and our shared existence. We don’t have to pretend. Just do the work, reflect what you have experienced, where you have come from, what you feel. You know, the basics.
SOURCES AND LINKS FOR MORE READING:
Another iPhone faux-film app now has a faux-disposable camera mode: You can’t see the pics straight away, you have to ‘finish’ the ‘roll of film’ first. The instant sharing idea is okay, but there are other ways to do this. The cartoon video explaining the new app fills me with inconsequential rage!
And, purely because I managed to avoid using it in the rest of this piece: HIPSTER.