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Lomo: Shoot from the hip

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But what is it that singles this particular piece of outdated technology – it has no auto-focus and no built-in flash – from all the others, and where did the Lomo come from?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

According to Lomo Life, the students were "blown away by the saturated, colourful photos – each picture framed by shadowy vignetting [an effect that gives the photos' edges a blurry effect]. They were amazed at just how different and vibrant all the photos seemed. They felt like they were seeing the world around them through different eyes." The camera's wide-angle lens also encouraged deviation from the traditional look-through-the-viewfinder approach to shooting, and its long exposure captured interesting light trails after dark: it was the perfect vehicle for taking spontaneous, informal and quirky images. Anyone could use it – and experimentation and rule-breaking were encouraged.

Word spread and, thanks to the students' cross-border dashes (and, subsequently, support for a new wave of production from the then deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin), the cameras themselves spread too – creating an enthusiastic, inclusive community of 'Lomographers'. In 1992, the first-ever Lomography exhibition was planned. In keeping with the democratic ethos they'd nurtured, the student organisers took negatives from their exhibiting friends and reprinted their photos in uniform size and format and filled a wall with them – deliberately excluding the photographers' names, and removing the temptation for each photographer to choose his or her own way of displaying their work.

Next came the Lomographic Society International, "a democratic organisation", explains the book, "committed to spreading the creative, experimental Lomographic approach to photographers across the globe." The organisation's 'Lomography Manifesto' set out 10 'golden rules' outlining a new photographic philosophy: the broad aim being to break with convention and adopt a 'shoot first, ask later' approach.

Now we can all join the Lomo cult. Once you've genned up on the rules at lomography.com, their shop is stuffed with multiple Lomo models and memorabilia, all of which still look beautifully classic – the perfect Christmas present for the photo nerd in your life.

'Lomo Life' is published by Thames and Hudson, £28