A lot has been said, good and bad, about the fad of the nineties, LOMOgraphy. As we're nearing the end of the year 2002, is it too late for me to put in my two cents worth? Perhaps it is. LOMOgraphy lost its brilliance years ago, and it's so easy to kick a dead horse, especially when the dead horse lends itself to being kicked. LOMOgraphy, like all things new and radical, is easy to criticize in the light of the old conventions – in fact, the breaking with those conventions, and perhaps the antagonizing of those who abide by them, is one of the reasons (if not the reason) why LOMOgraphy became so popular.
And LOMOgraphy is a lot of fun, no doubt there.
Still I can't get over the feeling that it's all a big fraud. I think it would be alright if LOMOgraphy had honest intentions to begin with, and that the big bandwagon of hipsters later corrupted it by going through the motions but not experimenting with the form, but I can't help feeling that LOMOgraphy is an orchestrated hype, a marketing trick right from the get-go. A sort of early exercise in viral marketing, not for a product but for a lifestyle.
[To disarm the argument that I'm kicking LOMOgraphy and its followers in order to place myself above them, I would like to point out that I've never been a LOMOgrapher, have only been sideways interested in the phenomenon, and have always stuck to composition-heavy black and white. Yes, I'm very boring. Perhaps I'm saying, "I told you so", but then I feel I'm entitled to. It's fun to have a personal website.
On the other hand, who am I kidding? My whole interest in Soviet cameras started because of LOMOgraphy. Back in the day I didn't buy an LC-A because I thought they were too expensive, so I bought some cheaper Soviet cameras instead, and the rest went from there. I didn't like LOMOgraphy even back then, but even to me the concept was powerful.]
Anyway, the story about LOMOgraphy is roughly as follows. Two Austrian marketing students went on holiday to Prague one day in 1992, and bought a camera there as they forgot to take one with them. Their eye fell on a certain 35mm compact produced in the Soviet Union from the early eighties onwards by the LOMO plant, called the LC-A. They bought it, experimented with it, hyped it, and the rest is history. (The fluffy happy stuff can be found on the official site.)
Now what I don't like, is that being marketing students, they kept a tight control on the hype as it developed, with the obvious intention of making profits. They founded a "LOMOgraphic Society" to preach the gospel, and made a deal with LOMO to become the sole worldwide dealers of the LC-A. They orchestrated get-togethers and LOMO wall happenings at trendy places. They started a website very early on when the web was still fresh. They made sure every LOMOgrapher passed through the Society. And all the time, the cash flowed in.
It's a capitalist conspiracy.
The LOMOgraphic Society has claimed LOMOgraphy, and has the contracts to prove it. Anyone else that tries to do honest business gets an intimidating letter. Talk about bad karma.
Who likes monopolists? And still the Society gets away with charging $150 for new LC-A's, which is perhaps ten or twenty times their manufacturing cost. The LOMOgraphic Society would probably argue that everybody's free to buy whatever he wants, and that they can't help it that so many people are willing to shell out to own a LC-A. True, but that's not how it works when you're the only supplier. With an effective monopoly, it's take it or leave it – and if you're as popular as LOMOgraphy, group pressure does the rest. In that respect it's a lot like expensive fashion, and they know it.
I don't like group pressure. I don't like being cajoled to make a deal with a monopolist. I don't like to be manipulated to think that LOMOgraphy is a shiny happy art world with an admission fee of $150. On the contrary, that makes me rebellious.
LOMOgraphy is a profitable business. It makes money on everybody's desire to be part of the incrowd. To do that, it has to uphold a certain "indie cred". That's another way of saying that they're consciously oblique with the purpose of creating a high threshhold. Go look at their site. It's clear they've made it purposely hard to navigate and understand. Anybody who aspires to be a "true LOMOgrapher" surfs to their site and is supposed not to get it. Then after a while when all becomes clear, he or she feels reinforced, an "insider", by the accomplishment of understanding their obliqueness. I guess it depends on your point of view whether you call that "marketing" or "manipulation", but perhaps the two are the same thing.
LOMOgraphy is a profitable business. To keep business going, the Society has to come up with something new every now and then. It started with the LC-A, but the LOMOgraphy Imperium has extended itself to include clothing, online photo services, Chinese cult cameras like the Action Sampler, and parties and get-togethers. More and more, it's encapsulating their consumers with a pre-fab lifestyle, like your one-stop personality shop.
Damaging in this respect is the way in which they label everything LOMOgraphy, like that St. Petersburg-based factory has anything to do with the business any more. I doubt LOMO minds the exposure, but perhaps they do mind the insinuation that LOMOgraphy is similar to low quality, low tech photography. The whole thing has accentuated the very things LOMO would not like to have accentuated. It's so respectless to an otherwise very capable company. And now the Society is marketing plastic Chinese cameras under the LOMOgraphy brand name – what's that all about?
Apart from the social and economical backgrounds of LOMOgraphy as explained above, there is the artistic aspect. LOMOgraphs are pictures shot with the least possible brains. Preferably at night. Preferably from the hip. Preferably in such a fashion that you can't see what's on the picture. The intent of LOMOgraphy as a philosophy is to let go of all the burdens of traditional photography, and capture life as it is, as directly as possible. To translate freedom into pictures. To be free, wild, and young. To be spontaneous.
To then impress others with your spontaneity.
I think that the first LOMOgraphers probably had a lot to be excited about, because really, LOMOgraphy is a lot of fun, and its philosophy isn't crap. But then it became less of a philosophy and more of a business, and it lost its shine. LOMOgraphy became a synonym for bad pictures, for seeing things that aren't there, for labeling everything art. For people who owned this awesome camera, but didn't have the artistic temperament, or vision, or I don't know, to put it to good use.
If asked why LOMOgraphy is important, a LOMOgrapher would probably reply that it cannot be understood in terms of traditional photography. That it's a blend-over between reality, photography, graphic design and color theory. That they make beautiful abstract pastiches, without any further pretentions than bridging the gap between representation and reality. That, in essence, they're expressionist painters with cameras.
If that's right, then who am I to judge? But fact is that the majority of LOMOgraphs are just bad pictures of people pulling funny faces and cats sniffing the lens. They don't bridge the gap between representation and reality, they're just plain bad.
My point is that as much as LOMOgraphy can claim to be beyond the realm of traditional photography, it remains photography nonetheless. A bad LOMOgraph is a bad picture too; a good LOMOgraph is also a good photograph. The two are not that dissimilar. Just labeling something art and proclaiming it to be beautiful doesn't make it so. Good LOMOgraphs obey traditional photographical rules like composition and balance just as well – only different. Bad LOMOgraphs, however, cannot be made better by calling them art by decree.
Another one of my problems with LOMOgraphy is that the form is fixed, with you to fill in the blanks. There is very little room to experiment, because a LOMOgraph is a LOMOgraph only if it conforms to some basic rules. It needs to be unsharp. It needs to be abstractish. It needs to have strong colors. It needs to conform to some notion of artistic credibility. So in the end, how enlightened is LOMOgraphy really?
LOMOgraphy relates to real photography as painting by numbers relates to real painting. Everybody can make a LOMOgraph, and with some practice, everybody can do it well. It's very democratic. Everybody can do it. And at the same time, that makes the whole thing lose its value. If everybody can do it, why is it special? It's here that the Society tries to convince you that, oh yes, LOMOgraphy is very special because it's totally individual – but that at the same time, that it takes no skill. Great. So they sell exclusivity, but the whole world is their market. Playing on the common notion that everyone is special, even if basically we are all alike. After all it's only business...