Sally Bibawy and Matthias Fiegl, cofounders of Lomography, came of age as the world changed. As students in Vienna, Austria in the early 1990s, they were able to see the Soviet grip on neighbors to the east slip away. The Berlin Wall had come down just a few years earlier, the USSR became the Commonwealth of Independent States—the landscape of Europe experienced its largest shift since the World War II.
The pair, along with a group of friends also attending university, stumbled upon an obscure, Russian-made camera at a small shop during a visit to Prague. The Lomo LC-A was a tiny, pocket-friendly 35mm camera with zone focusing. Its design, along with the more economical film processing costs afforded by the automated minilabs that started popping up in supermarkets, changed the way the group approached photography.
Matthias recalls, “In 1991 there was a group of students and people who came from different fields. There was an artist, a lawyer, someone studying philosophy. We were a group of people who were lucky to find this camera and we loved
The LC-A opened new doors. Matthias continues, “Instead of very well-thought-out shots and composition, it was more like a random shoot-from-the-hip snapshot quantity photography. This was new to us and also everybody who had this camera was shooting all the time in the bars and on the way to the office or university.”
Procuring More Cameras
As members of the group continued to use the LC-A, others wanted the camera too. But they weren’t on sale in Austria, so they did what any twentysomething would do—they started sneaking cameras into the country.
Matthias again: “We started to smuggle cameras, first from Slovakia, and then from Budapest and the Czech Republic. And then we went to Russia and bought—I think the first big lot was 700 cameras from one dealer. There was only one shop in Moscow who always had the camera. It had thousands.”
A table of cameras and instant prints greets visitors as they enter Lomography’s Greenwich Village store.
“In the end we succeeded. And we told all the people buying this camera ‘you’ve become a Lomographer, a member of the Lomographic Society. We’ll do exhibitions together and shoot in the same style.”
But the success wasn’t sustainable. After a few months of transporting hundreds of LC-A cameras into Austria, officials took notice. “We managed to smuggle for a couple of months, but then the
They didn’t hear back. But the group was gaining
Matthias tells the story best: “We organized a big exhibition in Moscow. The foreign minister was opening the exhibition…Someone went on the stage and took the mic away and said ‘Ok now, I have to tell a story.’ He was the marketing person from the Lomo factory in St. Petersburg. He said ‘I have to tell this story because a couple of months ago we got a weird fax from Vienna, and it was sent exactly on the first of April. And it had such a strange message that someone had founded the Lomographic Society that we thought it was a first of April joke!'”
Lomography Diana medium format cameras on display. The company’s next big release is a version of the Diana that uses square format instant film.
News of the Moscow show had made its way to St. Petersburg. Sally chimes in, “We managed to convince them to sell us a small
Sally continues, “They gave us the [technical] drawings. It took us a year to find a factory to find someone. I was introduced to an engineer in northern China, and he was okay to set up a factory for the product. They build all of our complicated Russian remakes and lenses to this day.”
Taking Over Production
It didn’t stop with the LC-A. What began as an art movement evolved into a boutique camera maker, designing and bringing more products to market. The LC-A was joined by the Action Sampler in 1998, a point-and-shoot with four lenses. It captures four images on a single frame of film, each snapped about a quarter-second apart. Consider it the precursor to Apple’s Live Photos, a mix of still images and motion, but strictly analog.
Many, many more cameras would follow, and as Lomography grew, its product catalog became more diverse. The company would add film—both color and black-and-white—to its product catalog. And while there are several small companies producing small batches of artisanal black-and-white stock, Lomography is the only minor player making its own color film today. The other players in the market—Fujifilm and Kodak—are decidedly larger entities.
The LomoKino’s flickering, low-fidelity movies are starting to catch on—long after the camera made its debut.
Some have been quite successful—Matthias points to the Simple Use Camera, a modern disposable 35mm point-and-shoot, as an example. But others have struggled to find a place. The LomoKino was greeted with a cool reception when it debuted in late 2011. But Lomography didn’t give up on the quirky hand-cranked movie camera, which uses standard 35mm film cartridges. Today it’s enjoying a bit of a renaissance, with renewed interest from filmmakers who have found it to be a useful tool for stop-motion animation.
Weathering the Digital Revolution
For the most part, the big camera companies have abandoned making new film cameras. Aside from Lomography, Leica is the only real player remaining. And while Lomography’s cameras tend to be priced for the masses, Leicas are priced for the bourgeoisie.
Lomography hasn’t stuck around because of marketing. Matthias tells us, “We did not market analog. We just did analog and we continue to do analog. And we explain, explain, explain.” Sally jumps in to elaborate, “Staying stubborn and continuing to communicate what we did from the beginning, and promoting
The La Sardina is a plastic-lensed, wide-angle 35mm camera.
Matthias has some thoughts on the appeal of imperfect images. “Sometimes, these pictures of children, [the parents] take more and more trying to catch the most exciting moment. You have a perfect picture of a one-year-old. You look at it, it looks perfect, but it’s a zombie. This incredible super-happy expression of something is not a real child. So it’s better to have an un-sharp photograph of a child, which is, I don’t know, just sweet or just good. [With film] you take a picture and you cannot change it anymore. That’s it.”
The web has certainly been an outlet for communication. As if to reinforce the paradox, many of Lomography’s more recent products have been introduced and presold via Kickstarter. The first, a 35mm film scanner for use with your smartphone camera, was offered in early 2013 and shattered its $50,000 funding goal by more than $200,000.
Sally explains, “We learned [about Kickstarter] about two or three months before launching the film scanner. It was new, and we realized fast that it matched our target audience—early birds, people who involve themselves
Kickstarter can be dangerous, however, for companies and consumers. There’s a level of trust involved, and we’ve seen a number of products promised and presold, only to turn out to be vaporware. To this, Sally says, “People trust in us, that we deliver the product—this is very important.”
And Lomography has delivered. I’ve personally bought two products via its Kickstarter—the New Petzval lens and the Lomo’Instant Square. Both arrived on or ahead of schedule, as is the case with all of the other products the company has offered via the crowdfunding site. Its most recent effort, the Diana Instant Square, recently closed with nearly three times its funding goal collected. Early bird backers should expect to receive it in December.
Lomography’s New York City store is located in Greenwich Village, not far from Washington Square Park.
It’s not all virtual for Lomography, of course. I sat down with Sally and Matthias at the Lomography Gallery Store in New York’s Greenwich Village—one of more than a dozen brick-and-mortar locations the company runs across the world. Customers can browse, get hands-on time with a camera before purchasing, and get
What Comes Next?
Lomography has a quarter-century of life under its belt. In that time it’s moved from reselling smuggled LC-A cameras to designing its own originals, operating both physical and online retail portals, and embracing the latest in digital marketing with its Kickstarter campaigns. We’d need some seriously good prognostication to know where the company will be in 2043, but
Matthias paints the portrait with the broadest of strokes: “We wish to stay in photography. Analog photography.” Sally’s goals are in line, but a bit more focused: “I would say the goal is to keep creating content—fantastic content. We have an incredible community and team, working every day to introduce new people to analog photography.”
A sign in the New York Lomography store proudly proclaims, “The future is analog.”
For the more immediate future, Matthias offers a glean of what’s to come. “Next year we have two projects which will be totally nice and surprising and again, totally different. I mean, one is a film project. We will continue to produce
He continues, “The most important thing is that you’re not vanishing. A lot of good companies vanished, and this innovation is not coming anymore from them.”
You can walk into a store—or hop on Amazon—and buy the updated version of the LC-A, the LC-A+, or any number of products from Lomography. Matthias’ favorite is among them, the medium format LC-A 120, which looks a lot like the original, just bigger all around to accommodate the larger
Lomography believes in film, to the
(Note: The photos in this story were shot using the Lomography La Sardina loaded with Kodak Tri-X.)