From Russia with cred: The Lomo

Howard Byrom on the new cult camera
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Indy Lifestyle Online
APART from vodka and caviar, Russian consumables rarely come recommended. So who could have predicted that a retro-looking Russian pocket instamatic would foster a world-wide cult? The Lomo Kompakt Automat, or Lomo for short, is achieving the kind of kudos that Japanese corporations spend millions trying to promote. What was once a happy snappy for the comrades is now an essential item for the pop/art set.

Manufactured by a company who previously kitted out the KGB with night- sights, it's small and basic with a wide-angle lens and a lovely line in random distortion. Together with a capacity for operating in low light, Lomo boasts the most devoted following since the Kodak Box Brownie. Lomographers, as they like to be known, are a fast-growing breed; art-rockers David Byrne and Brian Eno are already owners and Jarvis Cocker has augmented the cause.

So what's all the fuss about? "Modern cameras can be intimidating," says Sonja Diamond, a recent photography graduate and Lomo-convert, "but this really captures the essence of the moment. It's not intrusive so it doesn't give your subject time to assume their camera persona." The Lomo ethic - be quick, don't think, and shoot from the hip - often produces winsome images, and sometimes a riot of blurs. Matched with the facility for over- exposure it means there are never any absentees in the pack.

"Lomography brings photography back to its roots," says Matthias Fiegl, the man who's responsible for this photography sub-genre. "If I'm invited to dinner with friends and I show up with a big Nikon it spoils the communication. This is close and personal." Fiegl founded the Lomographic Society in Vienna after smuggling the first cameras out of Russia while still a student. After exhausting retail supplies from the Steppes to the Volga he approached the source: Leningrad State Optical-Mechanical Organisation. Now with the sole world rights, Fiegl has launched a lifestyle, with 40 Lomo "Embassies" from Malmo to Yokohama. There are now some 23,000 Lomographers world-wide - excluding, of course, the unwitting ones in Vietnam, Cuba and Russia. Fabian Monheim, an Austrian designer based in London, became Ambassador for the UK by default. "I wanted to buy one," he says, "but Lomo said there wasn't an Embassy in London. They asked me if I wanted to do it." Since March he's operated the Lomo Embassy as a side-line from his studio on the edge of Clerkenwell.

Lomographers are encouraged to send in snaps to be assembled in their thousands on Lomo walls. These have been exhibited from LA to Hanoi, and yes, there's even a master plan - the World Lomo Exhibition. It's free- for-all expression - people's art in the truest sense. Lenin would be proud.