Shoot from the Hip

By Burt, Kate | The Independent (London, England), December 8, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Shoot from the Hip

Burt, Kate, The Independent (London, England)

It's analogue, has no autofocus - and no flash. And that's precisely why the Lomo is a cult camera, says Kate Burt

Two decades ago, before Instagram, the iPhone and Facebook, a sturdy little Soviet-designed analogue camera was shaping photography's first wave of democratisation - in a student flat in Vienna.

Though, rather undemocratically, back in the early Nineties the pioneering Lomo Kompakt Automat (or Lomo for short, as any hipster photo nerd refers to it) was somewhat hard to get hold of - even for the Viennese students. They could only stock up on this cheap point- and-shoot by making intrepid dashes across the newly relaxed borders of neighbouring Eastern Bloc countries, where they smuggled bagfuls of them past prowling communist customs officers. As for early British adopters - because this was before the time when you could buy a Lomo on Amazon - they'd have to track down its sole distributors to an obscure design studio in London's Clerkenwell, where friends of the Viennese students were selling them.

Despite (or perhaps because of) our digital dependency, reverence for the camera has only grown over the years and, with its underground credentials, it was only a matter of time before the Lomo achieved cult status. Now it's official: Lomo Life, published by Thames & Hudson, is a new book studded with contributions from fashionable celebrity fans, including Paul Smith and the White Stripes, and celebrates the 20th anniversary of the camera's discovery outside the Iron Curtain.

But what is it that singles this particular piece of outdated technology - it has no auto-focus and no built-in flash - from all the others, and where did the Lomo come from?

The camera is named after the St Petersburg arms manufacturer that developed it in the early 1980s Cold War era. A Soviet-adapted version of a Japanese model, the Lomo was deemed an appropriately affordable, hardwearing and easy-to-use gadget for the proletariat and soon went into mass production.

But it wasn't until around 10 years later, in Prague, that the camera started to gain cult status. In 1991, the aforementioned Austrian students took a trip to Czechoslovakia, across the newly- opened border between the neighbouring countries - and discovered a Lomo in a little camera shop. They may have purchased it for its quaintly old-fashioned aesthetics (its solid, black plastic exterior has something of the retro charm of the Trabant car, another lately fashionable Communist relic), but it was when they got home and developed the photos that the students really got excited.

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