Photography: Lomo sapiens

A low-tech Russian camera is the latest designer icon. Boyd Tonkin looks into it
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You may remember that, not long ago, Mercedes-Benz had to send a new small saloon back to the drawing-board because the prototype overturned on bends. Less widely reported was the stunt by an enterprising German magazine, which ran the same test with a two-stroke Trabant. The despised Trabbie (symbol of East German communism in all its belching, puttering, cardboard-sided shame) took the corners without missing a beat, to the cheers of its growing fan-club. Almost a decade since the Wall began to crumble, the time is ripe for Iron Curtain chic.

Even if they left the warehouse yesterday, Eastern-bloc icons still need to look as if they come from a Dickensian factory staffed by tipsy skivers and overseen by some booted commissar. The chunky Lomo compact camera - or Leningradskoje Optiko Mechanitscheskoje, as you won't call it after a Stolly or two - fits the bill perfectly. It may resemble an offcut from a tank but, for a mere pounds 85, this modish Russian export snaps well above its weight.

The Lomo delivers pictures with a spontaneous, streetwise panache that has entranced taste-makers such as David Byrne and Brian Eno. Without the auto-focus and in-built flash that even its cheapest western rivals can now boast, it invites its users to shoot first and ask questions afterwards. The lens works surprisingly well in low light and at odd angles, to encourage a snap-happy approach that yields intriguing shots with zero preparation.

The Lomo trademark consists of brilliantly defined foreground images, as offbeat as you manage, set against a breathless background blur. Russian the kit may be, but this style brings to mind the photographic Beat generation of 1950s America. Figures such as William Klein, Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank took their lenses down into the street and pictured a society teeming with weird encounters and ragged, fractured cityscapes. These rapid-firing gunslingers challenged the aesthetics of fine-art photography, with its solemn verities of perfect framing, classic composition and (after Cartier- Bresson) that famous "decisive moment".

Frank and friends preferred the indecisive moment. Nothing ever quite added up or made sense - and that was the whole point. Their eye for pace and change and shock fed into the trash aesthetics that emerged from Warhol's Factory to colour every later design trend from Punk to BritArt. Photographers used to hanker after the grave stasis of the formal canvas. Look at the shifting blizzard of Lomo images, and you can tell that now they often aspire to the fuzzy logic of the video frame. The lens grinders of St Petersburg have seen the future, and it shakes

Fifteen thousand photographs on multiple boards will make up "Lomo: The Exhibition" at Blue Note,1 Hoxton Square, London N1 (0171-729 8442) from 6 April to 1 May, 1pm-6pm, admission free. Lomo cameras can be ordered from Lomo London on 0171-837 8835