Why Mr Klomp doesn’t like LOMOgraphy

A lot has been said, good and bad, about the fad of the nineties, LO­MOg­ra­phy. As we’re near­ing the end of the year 2002, is it too late for me to put in my two cents worth? Per­haps it is. LO­MOg­ra­phy lost its bril­liance years ago, and it’s so easy to kick a dead horse, es­pe­cially when the dead horse lends it­self to being kicked. LO­MOg­ra­phy, like all things new and rad­i­cal, is easy to crit­i­cize in the light of the old con­ven­tions – in fact, the break­ing with those con­ven­tions, and per­haps the an­tag­o­niz­ing of those who abide by them, is one of the rea­sons (if not the rea­son) why LO­MOg­ra­phy be­came so pop­u­lar.

And LO­MOg­ra­phy is a lot of fun, no doubt there.

Still I can’t get over the feel­ing that it’s all a big fraud. I think it would be al­right if LO­MOg­ra­phy had hon­est in­ten­tions to begin with, and that the big band­wagon of hip­sters later cor­rupted it by going through the mo­tions but not ex­per­i­ment­ing with the form, but I can’t help feel­ing that LO­MOg­ra­phy is an or­ches­trated hype, a mar­ket­ing trick right from the get-go. A sort of early ex­er­cise in viral mar­ket­ing, not for a prod­uct but for a lifestyle.

[To dis­arm the ar­gu­ment that I’m kick­ing LO­MOg­ra­phy and its fol­low­ers in order to place my­self above them, I would like to point out that I’ve never been a LO­MO­g­ra­pher, have only been side­ways in­ter­ested in the phe­nom­e­non, and have al­ways stuck to com­po­si­tion-heavy black and white. Yes, I’m very bor­ing. Per­haps I’m say­ing, “I told you so”, but then I feel I’m en­ti­tled to. It’s fun to have a per­sonal web­site.

On the other hand, who am I kid­ding? My whole in­ter­est in So­viet cam­eras started be­cause of LO­MOg­ra­phy. Back in the day I didn’t buy an LC-A be­cause I thought they were too ex­pen­sive, so I bought some cheaper So­viet cam­eras in­stead, and the rest went from there. I didn’t like LO­MOg­ra­phy even back then, but even to me the con­cept was pow­er­ful.]

Any­way, the story about LO­MOg­ra­phy is roughly as fol­lows. Two Aus­trian mar­ket­ing stu­dents went on hol­i­day to Prague one day in 1992, and bought a cam­era there as they for­got to take one with them. Their eye fell on a cer­tain 35mm com­pact pro­duced in the So­viet Union from the early eight­ies on­wards by the LOMO plant, called the LC-A. They bought it, ex­per­i­mented with it, hyped it, and the rest is his­tory. (The fluffy happy stuff can be found on the of­fi­cial site.)

Now what I don’t like, is that being mar­ket­ing stu­dents, they kept a tight con­trol on the hype as it de­vel­oped, with the ob­vi­ous in­ten­tion of mak­ing prof­its. They founded a “LO­MO­graphic So­ci­ety” to preach the gospel, and made a deal with LOMO to be­come the sole world­wide deal­ers of the LC-A. They or­ches­trated get-to­geth­ers and LOMO wall hap­pen­ings at trendy places. They started a web­site very early on when the web was still fresh. They made sure every LO­MO­g­ra­pher passed through the So­ci­ety. And all the time, the cash flowed in.

It’s a cap­i­tal­ist con­spir­acy.

The LO­MO­graphic So­ci­ety has claimed LO­MOg­ra­phy, and has the con­tracts to prove it. Any­one else that tries to do hon­est busi­ness gets an in­tim­i­dat­ing let­ter. Talk about bad karma.

Who likes mo­nop­o­lists? And still the So­ci­ety gets away with charg­ing $150 for new LC-A’s, which is per­haps ten or twenty times their man­u­fac­tur­ing cost. The LO­MO­graphic So­ci­ety would prob­a­bly argue that every­body’s free to buy what­ever he wants, and that they can’t help it that so many peo­ple are will­ing to shell out to own a LC-A. True, but that’s not how it works when you’re the only sup­plier. With an ef­fec­tive mo­nop­oly, it’s take it or leave it – and if you’re as pop­u­lar as LO­MOg­ra­phy, group pres­sure does the rest. In that re­spect it’s a lot like ex­pen­sive fash­ion, and they know it.

I don’t like group pres­sure. I don’t like being ca­joled to make a deal with a mo­nop­o­list. I don’t like to be ma­nip­u­lated to think that LO­MOg­ra­phy is a shiny happy art world with an ad­mis­sion fee of $150. On the con­trary, that makes me re­bel­lious.

LO­MOg­ra­phy is a prof­itable busi­ness. It makes money on every­body’s de­sire to be part of the in­crowd. To do that, it has to up­hold a cer­tain “indie cred”. That’s an­other way of say­ing that they’re con­sciously oblique with the pur­pose of cre­at­ing a high thresh­hold. Go look at their site. It’s clear they’ve made it pur­posely hard to nav­i­gate and un­der­stand. Any­body who as­pires to be a “true LO­MO­g­ra­pher” surfs to their site and is sup­posed not to get it. Then after a while when all be­comes clear, he or she feels re­in­forced, an “in­sider”, by the ac­com­plish­ment of un­der­stand­ing their oblique­ness. I guess it de­pends on your point of view whether you call that “mar­ket­ing” or “ma­nip­u­la­tion”, but per­haps the two are the same thing.

LO­MOg­ra­phy is a prof­itable busi­ness. To keep busi­ness going, the So­ci­ety has to come up with some­thing new every now and then. It started with the LC-A, but the LO­MOg­ra­phy Im­perium has ex­tended it­self to in­clude cloth­ing, on­line photo ser­vices, Chi­nese cult cam­eras like the Ac­tion Sam­pler, and par­ties and get-to­geth­ers. More and more, it’s en­cap­su­lat­ing their con­sumers with a pre-fab lifestyle, like your one-stop per­son­al­ity shop.

Dam­ag­ing in this re­spect is the way in which they label every­thing LO­MOg­ra­phy, like that St. Pe­ters­burg-based fac­tory has any­thing to do with the busi­ness any more. I doubt LOMO minds the ex­po­sure, but per­haps they do mind the in­sin­u­a­tion that LO­MOg­ra­phy is sim­i­lar to low qual­ity, low tech pho­tog­ra­phy. The whole thing has ac­cen­tu­ated the very things LOMO would not like to have ac­cen­tu­ated. It’s so re­spect­less to an oth­er­wise very ca­pa­ble com­pany. And now the So­ci­ety is mar­ket­ing plas­tic Chi­nese cam­eras under the LO­MOg­ra­phy brand name – what’s that all about?

Apart from the so­cial and eco­nom­i­cal back­grounds of LO­MOg­ra­phy as ex­plained above, there is the artis­tic as­pect. LO­MO­graphs are pic­tures shot with the least pos­si­ble brains. Prefer­ably at night. Prefer­ably from the hip. Prefer­ably in such a fash­ion that you can’t see what’s on the pic­ture. The in­tent of LO­MOg­ra­phy as a phi­los­o­phy is to let go of all the bur­dens of tra­di­tional pho­tog­ra­phy, and cap­ture life as it is, as di­rectly as pos­si­ble. To trans­late free­dom into pic­tures. To be free, wild, and young. To be spon­ta­neous.

To then im­press oth­ers with your spon­tane­ity.

I think that the first LO­MO­g­ra­phers prob­a­bly had a lot to be ex­cited about, be­cause re­ally, LO­MOg­ra­phy is a lot of fun, and its phi­los­o­phy isn’t crap. But then it be­came less of a phi­los­o­phy and more of a busi­ness, and it lost its shine. LO­MOg­ra­phy be­came a syn­onym for bad pic­tures, for see­ing things that aren’t there, for la­bel­ing every­thing art. For peo­ple who owned this awe­some cam­era, but didn’t have the artis­tic tem­pera­ment, or vi­sion, or I don’t know, to put it to good use.

If asked why LO­MOg­ra­phy is im­por­tant, a LO­MO­g­ra­pher would prob­a­bly reply that it can­not be un­der­stood in terms of tra­di­tional pho­tog­ra­phy. That it’s a blend-over be­tween re­al­ity, pho­tog­ra­phy, graphic de­sign and color the­ory. That they make beau­ti­ful ab­stract pas­tiches, with­out any fur­ther pre­ten­tions than bridg­ing the gap be­tween rep­re­sen­ta­tion and re­al­ity. That, in essence, they’re ex­pres­sion­ist painters with cam­eras.

If that’s right, then who am I to judge? But fact is that the ma­jor­ity of LO­MO­graphs are just bad pic­tures of peo­ple pulling funny faces and cats sniff­ing the lens. They don’t bridge the gap be­tween rep­re­sen­ta­tion and re­al­ity, they’re just plain bad.

My point is that as much as LO­MOg­ra­phy can claim to be be­yond the realm of tra­di­tional pho­tog­ra­phy, it re­mains pho­tog­ra­phy nonethe­less. A bad LO­MO­graph is a bad pic­ture too; a good LO­MO­graph is also a good pho­to­graph. The two are not that dis­sim­i­lar. Just la­bel­ing some­thing art and pro­claim­ing it to be beau­ti­ful doesn’t make it so. Good LO­MO­graphs obey tra­di­tional pho­to­graph­i­cal rules like com­po­si­tion and bal­ance just as well – only dif­fer­ent. Bad LO­MO­graphs, how­ever, can­not be made bet­ter by call­ing them art by de­cree.

An­other one of my prob­lems with LO­MOg­ra­phy is that the form is fixed, with you to fill in the blanks. There is very lit­tle room to ex­per­i­ment, be­cause a LO­MO­graph is a LO­MO­graph only if it con­forms to some basic rules. It needs to be un­sharp. It needs to be ab­strac­tish. It needs to have strong col­ors. It needs to con­form to some no­tion of artis­tic cred­i­bil­ity. So in the end, how en­light­ened is LO­MOg­ra­phy re­ally?

LO­MOg­ra­phy re­lates to real pho­tog­ra­phy as paint­ing by num­bers re­lates to real paint­ing. Every­body can make a LO­MO­graph, and with some prac­tice, every­body can do it well. It’s very de­mo­c­ra­tic. Every­body can do it. And at the same time, that makes the whole thing lose its value. If every­body can do it, why is it spe­cial? It’s here that the So­ci­ety tries to con­vince you that, oh yes, LO­MOg­ra­phy is very spe­cial be­cause it’s to­tally in­di­vid­ual – but that at the same time, that it takes no skill. Great. So they sell ex­clu­siv­ity, but the whole world is their mar­ket. Play­ing on the com­mon no­tion that every­one is spe­cial, even if ba­si­cally we are all alike. After all it’s only busi­ness…


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