The Many Lives of LOMO

Though Lenin’s heirs didn’t quite succeed in exporting the Revolution to the West, they did produce a Trojan horse of sorts. It’s called LOMO, and it’s a small, portable camera you can stash in your tunic pocket, always ready for that candid shot of a fat cat slurping caviar. And though the Soviet Union is long gone, its battalion of Trojan horses continues to multiply under the auspices of an Austrian company called Lomographische AG. Just last month, suspiciously close to the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution, Meg and Jack White, the rock ’n’ roll siblings known as the White Stripes, came out with their very own, limited edition his-and-hers LOMO cameras in — you guessed it — cornea-scorching red.

This marketing ploy is just the latest development in the cult phenomenon known as Lomography, a kind of egalitarian, populist approach to taking pictures and, some would argue, making art. The technique, which is neatly encapsulated in the Lomographer’s mantra of “don’t think, just shoot,” produces blurry, on-the-fly shots that recall the guerilla impressionism of photo vérité. Add to this the garish colors produced by the cameras’ odd focus, alternative film development techniques, and the optional fish-eye lens, and you’ve got yourself an international hipster sensation.

But back before Lomographers were holding world congresses and building “Lomowalls” in European capitals, LOMO was just your typical Soviet enterprise, striving for mechanical excellence despite its map of scars tracing the arc of 20th-century Russian history.

LOMO’s history goes a little something like this.

When it was founded in 1914, the concern manufactured World War I gun sights for under a fittingly belle époque name: the Russian Stockholding Association of Optical and Mechanical Producers (RAOOMP). In 1930, the same year the company was renamed GOMZ, or State Optico-Mechanical Factory, it came out with its first lightweight civilian camera. It continued its operations through the war years, surviving the siege of Leningrad without ceasing its operations for even a day, heroically pumping out badly needed observational optics for the front. After 1962, when it was rechristened LOMO (or Leningrad Optico-Mechanical Amalgamation), the enterprise continued producing video cameras, microscopes and astrophysical instruments, the largest of which, the BTA (or Big Telescope Alt-Azimuthal), had a diameter of 6 meters. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, LOMO had produced over 40 million of the highly portable cameras for which it became famous.

Like Soviet warheads, LOMO cameras proliferated around the globe. It was not until 1992, when two Viennese marketing students found one in a Prague thrift shop that the cameras went truly viral. The duo easily finagled an agreement with LOMO, which by that point was nearing bankruptcy, and the company granted them the sole right to soup up and sell the cameras anywhere outside the former Soviet Union. It took LOMO until 1995 to realize the extent of its blunder and cry foul, at which point St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor, one Vladimir Putin, intervened at the behest of the Austrians. He consoled LOMO with a tax break and befriended the company’s chair, Ilya Klebanov, who would eventually become a deputy prime minister. In the end, Lomographische AG retained “Lomography” as its trademark.

Now, with hundreds of thousands of youths snapping photos, sharing them on myriad web forums, and organizing themselves in underground Lomography clubs, perhaps LOMO’s latest incarnation may prove to be more than a fad.

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