A day in the life of Lomo sapiens

A new people's art-form is taking the world by storm. All you need is a roll of film, a healthy disregard for convention and an £89 item of Cold-War chic. Sally Chatterton takes a crash course in the anarchic art of Lomography
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The Independent Online

A friend told me that the reason I came fourth in the recent UK Lomolympics heats is that I'm good at taking dreadful photographs. He missed the point. The fact that I managed to come fourth out of 71 Lomographers is a tribute to the essence of this idiosyncratic camera rather than to the artistic eye I don't have.

A friend told me that the reason I came fourth in the recent UK Lomolympics heats is that I'm good at taking dreadful photographs. He missed the point. The fact that I managed to come fourth out of 71 Lomographers is a tribute to the essence of this idiosyncratic camera rather than to the artistic eye I don't have.

Lomography, for the uninitiated, is the practice of taking photos with the Lomo, a Russian compact camera manufactured by Leningradskoje Optiko Mechanitscheskoje Objedinenie. The chances are that you've never heard of it, but there are more than 3,000 proud owners of the Lomo in the UK. It's embraced by art students, famous former art students, pop stars and politicians alike - Brian Eno dabbles as does Moby, the members of Pulp and even Fidel Castro.

As its name suggests, the Lomo Compact-Automat is a small, automatic camera developed in former KGB laboratories in St Petersburg. It is a squat hunk of heavy metal with manual focus, a fast, wide-angle lens and automatic exposure which, before it hit the west and the big time, was given away to party apparatchiks.

The Lomo's journey from Russian unknown to worldwide cult - with a following of more than 200,000 trigger-happy aficionados - happened in a manner which would come to typify Lomo lack of intention. Austrian student, Matthias Fiegl, picked up one of the cameras in a junk shop in Eastern Europe in the early Nineties and took it back to Vienna where he and his pals were delighted with its quirky results. The camera's manual focus usually produces blurred images but the high-quality lens and automatic exposure does allow for the occasional accidental piece of sharp-shot brilliance; it's also ideal for low-light situations and special effects.

The advent of the cheap auto-everything camera has generally meant that pictures now rarely truly represent what was seen on the scene - carefully framed faces and colours are bleached by flash and eyes are reduced to red, unblinking, pinpricks. Matthias's Lomo pictures - a profusion of colours and combination of sharp edges and blurs - were the antidote. The Lomo became the object of his friends' and his friends' friends' desires; more cameras were obtained and exhibitions were mounted and a society inaugurated.

In 1994 it was discovered that the Lomo factory was in the process of discontinuing the camera line. A Viennese representation was sent to St Petersburg where it offered to promote the Lomo in return for its worldwide distributions rights. They couldn't refuse; 150 workers were re-instated and the factory recommenced manufacturing the camera. The price increased and a cult was born. Since then, the Lomographic Society has been setting up Lomo embassies all around the world and spreading the word about Lomography.

As the Lomographic Society grew, it developed a rigorous philosophy of use. Pop into one of the 50 or so LomoEmbassies around the world and not only can you pick up a camera, but you come away with a handy off-the-peg ideology that advocates the taking of spontaneous pictures: carry your Lomo at all times and shoot from the hip without thinking - looking through the viewfinder is frowned upon. It's the very antithesis of the studied formality of professional photography and, for some, has become a way of life.

During the London leg of the competition to find the world's best Lomographer I encountered a wealth of creative professionals - and amateurs - determined to prove their point-and-click worth over a bank holiday-weekend in August.

Most of the Lomolympian wannabes each had their own interpretation of the Lomo aesthetic: some would only use it in low light situations, some would only photograph animals; some liked the unpredictability and spontaneity of the photographic results and some merely enjoyed being part of a club. Fabian Monheim, London's first LomoAmbassador and one of the brains behind the UK Lomolympic leg articulated its appeal clearly. "It's not a fragile camera so I can carry it everywhere in my bag without giving it a second thought," he said. "Also the way you take the pictures is an important part of the aesthetic - you take realler looking pictures because people are not aware you are photographing them. Your object is caught on film before it has the chance to act up for the lens. And thirdly, the lens gives the pictures an interesting vignette quality. It produces a darkening at the edges of each picture which is aesthetically pleasing."

It's not, then, the deliberate art-hoax it might sound. It is photography with a legitimacy which approaches that of street photography while at the same time slightly subverting Cartier-Bresson's intention "to record, in a fraction of a second, the emotion of a subject, and the beauty of form". For Lomographers, the capturing of the moment is not done by waiting patiently for Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment"; on the contrary, the Lomographic manifesto encourages Lomographers "not to think - you don't have to know beforehand what is captured on your film nor do you have to know afterwards either".

So you can never be sure what's lurking on your film - you may feel you've got a Pulitzer prize-winner or nothing but junk but, for good or bad you will be surprised by your results. I discovered this first-hand after three days of Lomo-graft. On the Saturday I went to the Lomogallery on London's Rosebery Avenue faintly curious. I emerged £89 lighter with Lomo camera and Lomolympic instructions, slightly confused as to what the manual focus was for and convinced that Lomography was utter, pretentious nonsense.

But Amira Bibawy, a Lomo devotee assured me, as she aimed her camera at my feet, that I would see the light. "Lomography is not about perfection. It's a document of the surface of the world. Nor is it about any one aesthetic; it's about the capturing of a moment in time as you experience it." This, she told me, makes for a peculiarly democratic art form. I felt marginally better that I didn't know what an f-number was.

Monheim and his fellow fanatics had dreamt up three days of events to test Lomographers' mettle - and sanity. The object of the first day's events was to to create lomographic beauty from a list of 101 random items with only 108 exposures. Competitors were expected to take pictures of policemen, a man in a hat with a beard, a nude, a tribute to Diana, a fast-food close up, the best blur... The 10 winners from this event would be those Lomographers who managed to photograph the most things from the list in the most ingenious manner in the following five hours.

The photographic treasure hunt was the perfect initiation into Lomography. The sheer volume of photographs which had to be taken and the compacted timescale meant that most of the snapping that went on was indiscriminate and the shots were rattled off like machine-gun fire. And without the distancing act of being looked at through a camera viewfinder the subjects of the photographs didn't seem to notice what you were doing.

The Lomographer is supposed to capture a moment a photogrpher would take an age to construct formally and probably miss. It's an irreverent deconstruction of photography as fine-art. The camera liberates you rather putting itself between you and your object.

The second day's event was a trip to the Notting Hill Carnival for a spot of freestyle Lomography. The judges were looking for the best Lomograph - composition freaks and viewfinder addicts were given short shrift. This was, if anything, even more frantic. With 72 attempts to be artistic and absolutely no idea of what results the camera would produce, I snapped bags of whistles, colourful cocktails, booty-shaking dancers and a friend's sparkly top.

After some initial enthusiasm for the democratic art of Lomo, it was crushing to discover that my pictures of 101 things weren't brilliant, inspiring or even particularly interesting. But the freestyle pictures from a sunny day in Notting Hill were a surprise - the camera had absorbed all the colour and frantic energy of the carnival and landed me among the final 20.

Only two Brits were to go on to "Lomo heaven" at the Lomolympics in Tokyo and the final day's irreverent fun tested competitors' lomographic idiosyncrasy and knowledge of the camera. During the track and field events I failed to differentiate the Lomo focus setting of 0.8 metres from that of 1.5 metres, nor did I have enough experience in shooting from the hip at top speed. I could take pictures blindfolded though and capture flying wellingtons on film. I might be able to take the occasional accidentally good picture but I wasn't a lomo expert yet and not quite good enough to make the podium.

The track-and-field antics epitomised the lomo ethos - it's not about precision shots, it's about breaking the basic tenets of photography and capturing the energy of a moment. Once you get to grips with the camera you do get a feel for what might work but much is down to the whimsy of a cold-war chic implement that steals moments from time.

Be warned though. After an initiation into the world of Lomo, you start to see the world through it. Much as an artist carries a sketch pad, the Lomo is always at hand to catch a purple sunrise, an arguing couple or a random blur. As the overall winner of the London Lomo leg put it: "It's about your impressions. Your impressions may surprise you. That's the beauty of it."

The Lomolympics finals take place 20-30 Sept in Tokyo