Freeze frames

Liz Farrelly leafs through a book of Lomo images, and discovers what makes this cult camera tick

Lomography is something you do while doing something else, says Lomo. If this is anything to go by, definitions of the cult camera are at best vague, but at its simplest, it takes great snaps. Lomographs, that is, not photographs.

Developed in the early 1980s as Russia’s ‘camera for the people’ at the Leningrad Works for Optics and Mechanics, (hence Lomo, abbreviated from the Russian Leningrádskoye Optiko Mechanichésckoye Obyedinénie, in case you’re wondering), the Lomo LC-A married a simple plastic box with a new kind of wide-angle lens that enhanced colour as well as getting close ups. Designed to work in low-light conditions it has an easy focusing mechanism and a high quality lens. Around 10 000 Lomos a month were pumped out, making it the best selling camera behind the Iron Curtain.

Chapter two of the Lomo story jumps to Prague, where in 1991, a pair of visiting Viennese students discovered a Lomo in a junk shop and started snapping away. Matthias Fiegl and Wolfgang Stranzinger caused quite a stir with their pictures back home and began putting on exhibitions, selling all the Lomos they could get their hands on to friends and local artists. The pair eventually set up the first lomographic society, Verein Lomographische Gesellschaft.

Realising they needed a guaranteed supply, Fiegl and Stranzinger contacted the factory in Russia, only to be laughed at. Not until they staged a simultaneous New York/ Moscow exhibition did the Russians sit up and take notice. With the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin no less, they negotiated an exclusive deal and saved the factory from closure.

Along with the camera, the images it produces and the people who use it, there’s one more piece to the Lomo puzzle. The graphic language of the Lomo has always been crucial to its perception and reception. The Vienna office has produced a number of catalogues and brochures, runs a picture agency and has a website, www.lomo.com, that sells a range of cameras (it’s also developed a few new ones) and accessories, including a nifty clip with which to piece together a ‘Lomowall’ of images. The website also offers developing and archiving, and there’s a Lomo shop in Vienna’s revamped Museum District. But as the Lomo organisation is by necessity a network of individual embassies, and each ambassador is responsible for that territory’s sales and promotion, there’s always been room for diversity.

Enter Fabian Monheim, Britain’s Lomo ambassador, Fly Productions co-creative director along with Sophia Wood and, now, designer and compiler of Lomo’s first official book.

‘I’ve always been a plastic camera buff and collected pin-hole cameras,’ Monheim says. ‘In a way I was a lomographer before I had a Lomo.’ It took him a few years to track one down, after he heard about it from a friend, and when he phoned Vienna they instantly invited him to set up the London embassy. ‘All I needed was a fax machine,’ he recalls. That was about six years ago, during which time he’s opened a Lomo gallery in London’s Clerkenwell.

‘I had collected over 15 000 lomographs, and that’s the edited highlights,’ Monheim explains. ‘People would flick through my own albums and say, you must do a book. But we didn’t know how to get the material together without looking through thousands of shoeboxes.’

Two years ago, the London lomographers came up with the idea for an official Lomo scrapbook-style photo album, which, while Vienna was sceptical about its success, eventually became the forerunner to the book. Monheim asked lomographers everywhere to paste their own pictures and thoughts into the album.

The album also represented Fly’s first stab at creating a graphic language for Lomo. The typographic approach pioneered in the album was pushed even further for the book, which mirrors the anarchy of Lomo pictures themselves. There are no double page spreads, so the spine doesn’t alter the images, and no white space as the grid was initially based on the Lomo ‘walls’ at the Vienna headquarters, which comprise collaged patterns of images.

As the camera is a piece of ‘discovered’ technology, the typography mimics historical forms, with hints of Victorian display fonts, Russian Constructivist assemblage and ‘an old book that’s been in your library for years, complete with your grandfather’s comments in the margins’, Monheim says. And, as the action-packed act of lomography is prone to producing a few less than perfect shots, the sort your local chemist would smack a sticker on, but that Monheim describes as ‘part of Lomo’s charm’, the book’s layout bristles with ‘mistakes’.

‘I wanted to design the book the way you’d take a picture with a Lomo, which is, you try not to compose it,’ he adds. The typography by Wood is purposefully mixed up, with proof-readers’ marks.

Despite the Hong Kong printer’s attempts to correct the marks, ‘which was very nice’, the mistakes stand. Similarly, in the image section of the book, subjects are messed up and arranged in random order. ‘We spent a month throwing out great photos because they didn’t work in a spread with others,’ Monheim says. By then his selection echoed the unpredictability and juxtaposing of the vast archive of images he had accessed.

‘We had 200 000 pictures, and scanned 6500,’ explains Fabian. ‘If we hadn’t had some idea of how to group or organise them, we’d have been lost. It could have taken two years to do this book if we hadn’t been unusually organised.’ Instead Fly finished the book in less than six months.

‘Right now I’m a bit Lomo’d out’, he admits, but that hasn’t stopped him and Wood using the Lomo for a range of projects. From art direction and advertising for Japanese fashion retailer Index, to a repositioning campaign for post-bombing Manchester, to another book, this time shadowing the exploits of athletes during this summer’s Commonwealth Games, Fly remains a ceaselessly creative ambassador for this funny little Russian camera.

Lomo: Just Shoot is published by Booth-Clibborn Editions on 1 August, priced £35.

The Lomo London Gallery is at 37 Rosebery Avenue, London EC1

Fly Productions

Fabian Monheim and Sophia Wood met while studying graphic design at Central St Martins College of Art and Design in the early 1990s. ‘Our work has a similar aesthetic feel,’ says Monheim. ‘Nearly 99 per cent of the time we agree with each other, it’s uncanny.’

Their first commission came pre-graduation from Habitat head of design Tom Dixon, to create an exhibition catalogue and the identity for Space, Dixon’s first shop. He later recommended them to the Barbican for the Jam exhibition and Fly produced the catalogue, its first book.

Other work followed, including record sleeves for EMI Germany; work for furniture designer Michael Young’s Japanese gallery; a ‘waffle and tea house’ in Kyoto; art direction, advertising and T-shirt design for Japanese retailer Index and a film for Michael Young, which was shot without a script.

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