How a group of students turned their discovery of a cheaply-made Soviet camera into a photography style and international business

LomographySally Bibawy, left, and Matthias Fiegl, right, are two co-founders of Lomography — a company dedicated to selling analogue photo products in a digital age
  • Lomography, a company dedicated to selling analogue film camera products, is still surviving despite the introduction and takeover of digital photography.
  • Their story started in 1991, when a group of students from Vienna stumbled upon a Soviet-made camera that produced unique and quirky results.
  • Their laissez-faire, no-rules approach to photography quickly spread, and what started as a small group of photographers showing off their work grew into an international company.

Sally Bibawy and Matthias Fiegl want you to know that film’s not dead.

They’re two co-founders of Lomography, which morphed from a simple non-profit society centered around sharing the end results of non-traditional photography into an international brand – selling film, analogue cameras, and accessories in an almost completely digital age.

The company’s history can be traced back to 1991, when a group of students from Vienna, Austria, including Bibawy and Fiegl, found a small, cheap communist-era camera built in the USSR for sale in a camera shop in Prague. The camera, the LOMO LC-A, was relatively unknown at the time, but its Soviet production meant cheap prices, and the group bought a few of the cameras to bring back with them.

Upon returning to Vienna, the students quickly realised this camera wasn’t ordinary – its somewhat shoddy production quality resulted in what would traditionally be considered a ruined photograph. Light would leak into the sides of the camera, causing certain areas of the film to become overexposed, known as “light leaks.” Sometimes the photos would come out in strange, unnatural hues once developed.

Lomo 3Lomography

Their discovery of this camera couldn’t have happened at better time, Bibawy and Fiegl said. Film was pretty cheap to develop, and almost anyone could afford a camera. But with photography comes traditional rules, like getting the framing right, capturing careful and precise shots, and tossing photos that suffered from light leaks or other development glitches.

Bibawy and Fiegl wanted to throw those rules out. They created the Lomographic Society, named after the quirky camera they stumbled upon. The society held exhibitions that showed off their new approach, which featured walls full of Lomographic shots, without photographer credits – which Fiegl described as “democratic.” They wanted to change how people looked at photography, and set out to prove that it wasn’t only for professionals: anyone could carry around a camera and be pleased with the results. Lomography wasn’t only for people who considered themselves photographers – it was for anyone with a camera.

“That was a time when the average person shot like one and a half film rolls per year – some pictures at your birthday party, and the rest of the film at Christmas time,” Bibawy said. “We communicated completely the opposite, and told people take it everywhere you go, put it in your pocket and shoot wherever you are. It’s social.”

Somewhat ironically for a group that wanted to get rid of rules in photography, the group came up with their own set of Lomographic rules: which they called the ‘10 Golden Rules:’

  1. Take your camera everywhere you go.
  2. Use it any time – day and night.
  3. Lomography is not an interference in your life, but part of it.
  4. Try the shot from the hip.
  5. Approach the objects of your Lomographic desire as close as possible.
  6. Don’t think.
  7. Be fast.
  8. You don’t have to know beforehand what you captured on film.
  9. Afterwards either.
  10. Don’t worry about any rules.
Lomo exampleLomography

Photography tends to have a high barrier to entry: Cameras can be expensive, and lens prices add up. This style of photography was affordable and accessible to anyone with a cheap camera in their pocket – and they were told not to worry about messing up.

“In terms of the visual outcomes of photography it was us who told people a picture is out of focus can be a very nice photo,” Bibawy said. “(And) a picture with light leaks would be not imaginable … In the labs there were people sitting, cutting out these pictures. So if you gave film for development and you got your pictures, you would not have gotten these. But we started to tell people, ‘Look at this picture – it’s fantastic with the light leak, this is even more valuable because it has a special situation which you did not influence.'”

This was reassuring to people who tended to be afraid of trying photography out of fear of messing up, the duo said. Just as today anyone with a phone in their pocket can document their lives without needing to call themself a ‘photographer,’ anyone could carry a camera around and not need to be traditionally trained to obtain aesthetically pleasing results.

“Shoot what you want, and don’t care about the rules, and like or dislike your picture,” Fiegl said. “You define what’s a good picture, not somebody else.”

Their methods appeared to be resonating with people, as demand for the cameras grew. The Lomographic Society agreed upon a deal with the LOMO factory in St. Petersburg, through which the Russian factory would supply the group with cameras, which would then be re-sold in various Lomography stores that the group had begun to spread. The factory started to have financial troubles after the collapse of the USSR, however, and it seemed they would need to cease production. Eventually, Vladimir Putin, then the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, stepped in and offered a tax break for LOMO in exchange for a higher buying price for Lomography. The solution worked for a while, but the production was eventually moved to a Chinese factory in the early 2000s.

The business soon became international, with Lomography stores popping up in places like Hong Kong and New York City, and their product line began to grow as well. No longer only producing the LC-A, the camera that started the movement, the company ventured out into various 35mm cameras, medium-format 120 film, and even re-introduced the 110 film format that had previously been discontinued by other film manufacturers. They began to produce video cameras, instant cameras, and pinhole cameras – all of which were analogue, and whose existence seemed to be threatened by the growing presence of digital photography. Some of their products are even sold at the clothing and lifestyle store Urban Outfitters, including some 35mm cameras, instant cameras, and film.

Lomo example 2Lomography

Film photography has certainly seen its ups and downs since the introduction of digital photography. For a while, it seemed like analogue photography would soon become a thing of the past. Somehow, Lomography survived.

“I think one reason why we are still here, and we are asked that constantly, compared to startups, we are 25 years old, which is really old for today’s ‘young’ company structures,” Bibawy said. “I think we just always were driven by partly love, but also the pressure to survive. We were in a dying field basically, half of our time, or longer even.”

As analogue-focused companies began to go out of business, Lomography felt the production knowledge behind film and analogue industry could potentially be lost, and “we very soon had to realise that on one hand we have to work to keep production and knowledge alive,” Bibawy said.

Sticking through it eventually proved to be worth it, though, as film appears to be making a comeback, even with younger photographers who weren’t even alive to see the prime of analogue photography.

“There’s really a comeback of film now – that’s not only a wish,” Fiegl said. “There is something boiling which is incredible, and we feel it directly.”

But it’s not always clear why film could be making a comeback, especially within a younger demographic. Bibawy and Fiegl feel that is has something to do with the novelty of film after growing up in a digital age.

They somehow discover something new, which is really complicated, but it worked out,” Bibawy said. “And today it’s the surprise effect. People are so curious, it’s the curiosity in the person which brings them to buy and try something new.”

Curious, young, and active people are exactly who the company considers its target demographic, Fiegl said, even though they likely didn’t become familiar with film until later in their lives.

“(Film) is really a novelty, for young people, digital natives, it’s a novelty. This is normal,” Fiegl said, pointing to his cell phone. “They know how to operate it. This (analogue camera) is totally different, new for them. So they have to learn it.”

Sharing photography of daily life is certainly a huge part of social media now – and Instagram is filled with film-inspired filters that are reminiscent of the analogue age. One Instagram filter was even called ‘Lomo-fi,’ before eventually being renamed, as a nod to Lomography’s now widespread presence.

But this type of sharing is nothing new to Lomography: they began with exhibitions showing daily life, offering an unfiltered and imperfect look into normal, sometimes extraordinary moments. Moving that experience online was only natural for them – and they got on board early. The company launched a website in 1996, in the early days of the web as we know it today, and began to sell cameras and distribute newsletters. The community aspect of Lomography has always been crucial, and part of its website and social media presence is dedicated to showcasing the best of what Lomography’s community has to offer.

Lomo 4Lomography

“There are 50 million pictures on our website, and most of them are tagged,” Fiegl said. “This is not just an archiving of all your photography, this is a selection of people who upload their best pictures and tag them.”

Currently, the company is anticipating the release of its Diana Instant Square, an instant camera that was funded through Kickstarter – a campaign that has raised more than $US280,000. The cameras are expected to ship in winter, 2018.

“For us as a big company, it’s important to get a very close relationship with the customer so… the feedback is still in the (Kickstarter) campaign, and then we can implement it in the product,” Fiegl said. “Then also we can sharpen our marketing strategy, how we launch the product, so we know what people really react to strongly.”

But for now, the company is riding the ride of film’s comeback.

“This is not a trend,” Bibawy said. “Now, finally, analogue photography is getting a place within photography. Until now everyone thought it was going to vanish. Now I think people are realising that it’s taking its place.”

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