“Technically incorrect” isn’t usually much of a strong selling point for a camera, but for Lomo aficionados it’s become a badge of honour. Richard Kilpatrick tries out the latest incarnation, featuring a fixed wide-angle lens.
Twenty years ago, Perestroika’s effects saw a wind of change blow not only across Gorky Park, but the whole of the USSR. In the eponymous park, some schoolkids from Scotland were enjoying an early excursion into this brave new Russia; amongst them I badly documented the trip with a non-ironic Lomo 135BC. Like the Zenit I spent a lot of my childhood falling down Lakeland hillsides with, it was probably slightly amusing, yet mostly fuelled by the practicalities of taking a camera into a risky situation (be it a young child wanting a real SLR, or an economically challenged region of the world in turmoil), a disposable alternative to a “real” camera. Growing up and getting rid of such kit was a high priority, and it was rapidly replaced by proper Minolta and Mamiya gear – the old Lomo wasn’t given a second thought.
Even then, there was an inchoate “technically incorrect photography” movement; the Lomographic Society was founded by two Austrian students who discovered KMZ-Lomo’s 1980s Cosina CX-1 “clone” – the LC-A. Whilst they describe themselves as charmed by the images, most photographers given the camera would have been frustrated by the out-of-focus, vignetted results. Of course, the iconic status of the LC-A has seen Russia’s other products – the ones designed to compete globally rather than provide a budget local market option – overlooked. That 135BC, for example, was well received by reviewers in the 1970s despite the slightly clunky nature of it, and the lack of metering. The mass perception of Russian engineering was so strongly influenced by state‑controlled export programmes and the budget marketing of the products making it to this side of the Iron Curtain, that it becomes easy to forget these are the same engineers that got into space, that built a supersonic jet, and for the home market produced truly stunning optics. Lomo may now be a brand that embraces low-tech, but the LC-A was a cheap camera for the domestic market, part of a range of products, and it only remained in production from 1994 to 2005 due to the Lomographic Society’s promotion and distribution.
Over 20 years the Lomographic Society has been investing in new production and designs as well as continued development of existing models such as the Horizon; the Diana/Holga models are well known and ubiquitous. The LC-W 17mm Lomo has enjoyed strong demand since launch, and the impressive packaging really aims to bring you into the lifestyle of “Lomography” – film in funky tins, Lomo-printed packing papers, a sturdy wooden box, remote cable release and two large hardback books make up the entry-level package. You can spend more and get packages with film and underwater housing; this is not the utilitarian cardboard box that even KMZ’s “flagship” product (Zenit’s FS-12 Fotosniper) came in, this is marketing in overdrive. It almost loses the focus of the goods inside – enjoyable, fun books that really should be the first stop (camera aside) for any budding Lomographer, and of course, that wide-angle camera.
For all the wax-paper and Soviet art, the LC-Wide is not a Russian camera, nor is it old; the brand new 17mm wide-angle features a 103° angle of view – the resulting field of view being roughly equivalent to an 8-10mm lens on a typical APS-C DSLR. Two focus zones are offered on the f/4.5 fixed aperture lens – there’s no AF, it’s essentially two “fixed-focus” positions of 40cm to 90cm, or 90cm to ∞. Exposure control remains similar to the LC-A/+ in that it is wholly automatic with optimum exposure chosen for a manually selected ISO; a minimum shutter speed of 1/500s is available with no upper limit to the exposure time.
The Lomo’s metering works in a similar way to those old automatic Metz hammerheads and is analogous to a bucket collecting light – when it’s full, the shutter closes. Adjusting the ISO essentially places ND filters in front of the sensor, and the electronics have a target value of light before the shutter closes again. A second light in the viewfinder illuminates to suggest the shutter speed will be too slow for a handheld shot (below 1/30s). I found the almost total lack of control (short of intentional under- or over-exposure via the fiddly ISO wheel or blocking the exposure eye) frustrating; I would have opted to use the old LC-A location for aperture control as a +/- exposure compensation slider.
Some photographers may liken Lomography to taking the stairs when a perfectly serviceable lift is available. Image © Richard Kilpatrick.
Perhaps the plastic body and crudity masks the real genius of the LC-W – a lens that offers carefully controlled corner and edge distortion with generally pleasing sharpness in the centre circle, an exposure system which is simple yet effective. It’s simple yet clever throughout, right down to the film transport/masks/half-open position on the lens cover; with time and imagination there’s a lot the LC-W can do. Yet the £349 price seems astoundingly at odds with the item you get purely because of the cheap-looking body. Handing it around to show people, the materials made it nearly impossible for them to accept the price regardless of their understanding of the tech; if there is to be a premium Lomo, then perhaps the shape could be retained around a metal, stronger-feeling chassis. Even with over £50 allowed on the included books, it seems expensive by comparison to, say, a 16.6mm f/4 Sigma DP1’s typical street price.
To get access to a new full-frame, vignetting, wide-angle lens – albeit with rangefinder coupling and adjustable aperture – one needs to call on Voigtländer and pick up their lovely 15mm VM; it costs the same as the LC-W and is pretty useless until you’ve attached it to an M-mount body (which is going to set you back a couple of hundred even used). Looking beyond the material object that the LC-W is, and instead at what it offers as a camera, it becomes better value – simply frustrating that by all appearances it could be cheaper and more accessible to people.
Hip to be analogue
And accessibility is vital. Young imagemakers, accustomed to digital excellence and effects, are being encouraged to rediscover the analogue variations and chemical manipulations possible with film. The side effect is that to do this, the cheap little Russian camera has to become desirable, a Veblen good that, in essence, endows upon the owner a credibility amongst Lomographic cognoscenti almost purely because of the investment required to obtain it (if not the effort). For a couple of years now the artistic endeavour of Lomography has been undermined and yet promoted by smartphone applications like Hipstamatic – accessible, highly visible and very rewarding for even a passing interest, these apps deliver the instantaneous feedback and ability to share results amongst a social network that the Lomo (and similar plastic cameras) cannot.
By offering funky, artistic results that are on-trend the software has inspired a new wave of creative interest based on those early Lomography enthusiasts reacting against an easy, digital world – and now those phone photographers are now taking an interest in the analogue realm and looking up to the results and process the film users get. If you live near a lab, you can get almost instant results – I dropped my film into Jessops, had lunch, poked a few secondhand shops and an hour later had a CD of at least Facebook-friendly sRGB files and two new rolls included in the price.
There are other starting points for Lomographers. The LC-A offers similar exposure reliability and 32mm (20mm with wide-angle accessory) f/2.8 glass, there are various refurbished Russian cameras including the 135BC for £200 – although if anything they’re too good for a typical Lomographer, being sharp, accurate little things with slightly fiddly controls. These classics can also be picked up on Ebay or in charity shops for pennies, though without the refurbishment the timing, cleanliness and accuracy may be lost; my own 135BC occasionally fails to advance the film. The found object route is part of the “cool” factor with Lomography, proven by the reactions the older camera gets.
The Lomographic Society has really worked on nurturing a lifestyle around this phenomenon. Commoditising cool is rarely cool. It is, however, a route to success with items like Diesel’s pre-worn jeans and fixie bikes becoming icons of particular lifestyles. These items don’t have an instant, digital equivalent so taking the effort out of finding, making or making good the obscure or secondhand originals has a high commercial value and the products generally are of a high quality. In the case of the Lomo, there’s a risk of it embodying values that go against the grain for the target market – a plastic, mass-produced item made in and shipped from China in packaging that arguably outweighs the material investment in the item bought is ideologically distant from the values embodied by finding art and enjoyment in a 30-year-old, unloved and obsolete product.
Having said that, there is a positive side to the mass-market street credibility of Lomography; it engages a new, wealthy audience and filters any talent therein. A few of the Lomographers of today will not only be the art photographers of tomorrow, they will be the camera enthusiasts, the Leica buyers, the collectors and artists having gone through the painful creative process that is getting it wrong with film. There’s a supportive and encouraging (if sometimes self-congratulatory) online community, and a nurturing familiarity behind it all. What’s really apparent is how social and inclusive Lomography can be – fun is the aim. As such, the LC-W becomes more rewarding than simply buying a cheap digital camera, and the price is long forgotten.
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