They are among us.
They walk around town, alone or in groups, randomly shooting people and things with Russian materiel.
Meet analogue photography lovers; meet the Lomographers.
At a time when music purists advocate a return to vinyl records, foodies praise home-cooked and “slow food” meals, and knitting is no longer confined to retirement homes, there is no reason why photography should escape the craze for a retro lifestyle and vintage items that are retaking their place in the world. And Hong Kong is no exception, even though new technologies are almighty here.
From Russia with love
Lomographers take their fancy, enigmatic name from Lomography, a movement dedicated to creative analogue photography that started in the 1990s, when two Austrian students travelling to Prague fell in love with a Lomo Kompakt Automat, also known as Lomo LC-A.
This Russian compact camera, inspired by Japanese model Cosina CX-1, was created in 1982 by the LOMO firm in Saint-Petersburg, in a factory that produced weapons and optical devices. Lomo photos’ overexposure, saturated colors and lo-fi grain were not considered as flaws, but as marks of authenticity. Lomo cameras became rapidly popular in artsy circles, and students were soon backpacking to Russia to get their own.
Lomography could have been nipped in the bud in 1996 when the LOMO factory announced the imminent cessation of the cameras’ production. Lomographers, however, didn’t quite like the idea of being deprived of their hobby, and traveled to Saint-Petersburg to convince the firm to maintain its activity. Somehow, their request was eventually granted, and a year later, Lomography launched its online shop, the first chapter of its success story on the web.
Taking the World
The first official store opened in Austria in 2001. More stores followed six years later in Hong Kong, Seoul, Paris, then in New York in 2009, and others in South America and other locations worldwide. In addition to participating in several photography festivals in Europe, the Lomography International Society organized its own–the Lomography World Congress, held in Beijing in 2004. Shops and amateur communities have kept it flourishing all over the world since then.
After a decade of successful development, the Lomography collection now includes over 30 models, with prices ranging from HK$298 for an ActionSampler to HK$2980 for an LC-Wide. While most of the products are now made in China, some models and most lenses are still made in Russia.
The most popular items are the LC-A+, an improved reproduction of the original Russian masterpiece, and the Fisheye, capturing everything within a 170° wide angle. In addition to its own line of cameras, clothes and accessories, Lomography also sells merchandise from other brands such as Horizon, Afga and Fuji.
Many would think that the rise of digital cameras in the 1990s and their astonishing success in the 2000s would have threatened if not killed analogue photography. However, Lomography knew a simultaneous –yet less important- rise in popularity. But whether it is a real passion for photography or smart marketing, the reason behind Lomography’s worldwide success is still debated.
For Joshua Thomson, a 34-year old artist living and working in Hong Kong, as for many others, the main reason for preferring analogue over digital photography is the higher quality of an analogue picture. “If you enlarge a digital image it will always pixelate no matter how big, [but] if you enlarge a 35mm print it will retain its original integrity,” he said.
Moreover, what attracts people most in Lomography are its creative and fun aspects.
“Part of the appeal of Lomography is the fact that it involves a physical process which is fairly unpredictable,” said Thomson. Unlike the instant gratification afforded by digital cameras, “there is an exciting period between taking the (analogue) photographs and waiting for them to be developed when you have virtually no idea how they are going to turn out and whether or not you’ll have any decent shots”.
Xanthe Lau, 23, Hong Kong Art Festival’s customer service officer, sees Lomography as a medium of artistic expression, especially because of the aesthetic challenge created by the limited settings of an analogue camera. She uses a customized model of Diana F with a blue Qing Hua pattern, a fruit of the collaboration between local artist Dorophy Tang and Lomography. It is a camera that she considers as a piece of art in itself.
A brand new toy
This arty spirit is the cornerstone of Lomography’s philosophy, which basically claims that everybody can be an artist by taking random snapshots of the everyday life. Creative analogue photography became branded as a lifestyle, as stated by the third rule of the Ten Rules of Lomography: “Lomography is not an interference in your life, but part of it”.
That trend found fertile ground inHong Kong’s consumerist culture. Lomo products appeared in town about five years ago, selling in selected stores such as Log-On and featured in magazines. They rapidly became the new must-have hipster item, a title previously claimed by instant-camera Polaroid, which had made its hip comeback a couple of years earlier.
“My friends ditched their Polaroids for Lomos, the Fisheye in particular. They were quite expensive then, so two or three people would buy one camera and share it. But they played with them for a while, and then lost interest and stopped using it,” said Lau.
Lomo owners in Hong Kong that stayed the course do seem to have a genuine interest in analogue photography. Thomson believes that it responds to people’s need of an alternative to new technologies. “If you grow up in a city like Hong Kong where new technology is king, it’s sometimes nice to be able to rebel and go back to a slower more unpredictable way of doing things,” he said.
A Hong Kong story
In fact, Lomography is big in Hong Kong. Established in 2002, Hong Kong’s Lomographic Society was actually the first one of the kind in Asia. It moved from its tiny office in Staunton Street, to a proper shop on Po Yan Street in Sheung Wan in 2007. The place was turned into a new Lomography concept-store in 2011, combining a shop and a gallery offering exhibitions, workshops and activities.
Jayson Cheung, 28, assistant store manager of Sheung Wan’s Lomography Gallery Store and proud Lomographer himself, estimates sale figures to 20 cameras per week, a number that can double or triple when a new product is launched, which occurred many time this year. Customers, both locals and foreigners, mainly from South Asia, are often already familiar with the brand.
“Lomo users will look for our shop like Apple fans will look for the local Apple Store in a foreign country. It’s a reference. Especially in Hong Kong, because the Sheung Wan store is the first one with an exhibition space and the Kowloon one is believed to be the smallest one,” Cheung said.
Lomography Hong Kong has about 2400 registered fans on Facebook, and the community has been growing since the major exhibition organized in Times Squarein spring 2010, featuring local celebrities, a LomoWall of photos and many models on display.
Fortified by this popularity, the Hong Kong Lomo community issued Lomography City Guide Hong Kong this year, one of the three Lomography city guides that have been published so far, along with Berlin’s and Vienna’s. Written by 74 passionate Hong Kong Lomographers, the guide offers 270 pages of tips and recommendations to discover or rediscover Hong Kong through the lens of a Lomo. The book includes a fold-out map of the best LomoLocations, or spots to shot, and a directory of analogue photography developers.
Tommy Tong, 39, owner of Color in August, a tiny photography shop in Yau Ma Tei, thinks that Lomographers, who represent 60% of his customers, contribute a great deal to the survival of analogue photography businesses in town. His shop now features a red Lomography sticker, a sign of his cooperation with the society since last summer, and sells a few Lomography films, along with promoting workshops and contests.
Back to the future
Although Lomography’s groundbreaking mottos, such as “Leave the Digital Behind” and “The Future is Analogue,” suggest a fundamental opposition between the two genres, digital photography and analogue photography are not mutually exclusive. Most Lomographers actually own digital cameras as well. “I use my cameras for different purposes. The digital for recording a scene and Lomo for creating something artistic,” said Lau. “Sometimes I would even check the scene with my digital camera before shooting it with my Lomo; I don’t want to waste film”.
Not only do Lomographers accept the digital era, but they have actually learnt to integrate new technologies and the Internet into their experience. They can connect to their country or region’s online community and publish their shots on their LomoHome, share them with other members and take part in online contests. Over 7000 pictures from all over the world are uploaded on Lomography’s diverse websites each day.
“Actually, most of my customers request for their photos to be developed on CD rather than on paper” said Tong. “They want to use them on computers you know”.
Not quite ready to leave the digital behind yet.