8 April 2013

Game Over

There was a time not that long ago when I would forgo taking out my expensive and highly capable Digital SLR for a spot of photography and instead grab a cheaply made, plastic, lightweight and low-tech compact with whatever film happened to live in my fridge. The camera in question was a Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim (UWS) and served as my introduction to the world of Lomography.

For those who are unaware "Lomography is an analogue camera movement and community, and is also a commercial trademark of Lomographische AG. It was founded in 1991 by Viennese students Matthias Fiegl and Wolfgang Stranzinger when they discovered the Lomo LC-A camera created by LOMO PLC of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Since 1995, Lomography has been the sole distributor of that camera outside of the former Soviet Union, and has since moved into producing their own range of analogue cameras, and other imports such as the Diana camera" - Wikipedia.

It might help at this point to check out their website and store to see what it's all about but essentially Lomography (to me at least) was an opportunity to reignite interest in 35mm film, to experiment in different ways of shooting and processing, to use cameras both old (Olympus Trip 35) and new (Lomography Supersampler) and to forget about the technical elements required to create a shot and simply concentrate on the fun and spontaneity of shooting.

In truth it appealed to me on two levels. The first was to remove myself from the constant learning and applying of photography rules and concepts, to leave behind f-stops and bracketing and just enjoy shooting purely for fun. Secondly it appealed to my gadget loving side. Being able to both scour car boot sales and charity shops for old cameras and oddities and get my hands on the latest weird and wonderful kit from the Lomography store. I was hooked.

I spent a few years as an active member of the community. I entered competitions, uploaded photos and wrote articles for the site. I bought and sold cameras, refurbished old kit, tried all manner of 35mm film and argued with the naysayers who believed all Lomography to be an outlet for hipsters to pass off naff photos taken on poor cameras as art.

It might be surprising to some then that I have sold all my analogue cameras, emptied my fridge of film and have not posted on the Lomography website for a number of months. No longer do I eagerly await the postman to deliver my latest processed negatives, gone are the days of writing articles for Piggy Points and the closest I now come to cross-processing is via a digital filter.

So why the turnaround? In short I have come to loathe the company and community I once had a fondness for. It was not instant, it was not based on the film medium nor is it a slight on their products, some of which I would still speak just as highly of today. It seemed to happen gradually as the products became more popular and the community grew larger.

Along with a bigger community came more user generated content. It is this content that slowly started to turn me away from the community as where once I defended against the Hipster tags I now saw a growing number of articles living up to this. Articles would heap praise on products (sometimes justified) whilst never exploring the negatives adding up to a balanced review. Hyperbole would mount throughout a piece before erupting like a bullshit volcano across your screen. With each new review of a new camera turning into a Lomography love-in I started to become frustrated with the writers and bored with their pieces.

Worse still were those writing of products and photos making claims that were technically incorrect and just plain wrong. In a sense it's difficult to judge someone's opinion as wrong as it is after all just an opinion. But when you are using scientific or technical terms to describe something you should have some understanding of those terms and what they mean and be factual in your conclusions.

In an example posted by one user showing a completely washed out photo reddened by a drastic light leak they wrote "The photos are very high contrasted, with emphasized saturated green and red tones. It also gives lovely red light leaks", none of which were true of the displayed photo other than the light leak all but destroying the image.

The metaphors and hyperbole continue in many articles; one describes Velvia RVP as a "beast" and "probably one of the most crazy, unpredictable and wild films in the universe" whilst another describes Superia 1600 as offering "mind blowing grain." It probably shouldn't bother me and maybe it goes against the Lomography ethos to be so concerned with factual terms but it does bother me. Reading the grossly exaggerated and factually incorrect claims induce cringe of the highest order and turn me off the website entirely as I start to view members of this community - my community - as the Hipsters I once swore we were not.

Not convinced? Those examples are just a film review or two. There are countless more examples in tipster, location and camera articles. I'll leave this section with one more quote from a camera review conclusion; "Don’t be shy, just say “I love you” to your beloved camera, and share with us how sweet your experience is when living with your petite camera sweetie!" Brilliant.

It's not just articles though. Another aspect that grew tiresome for me was the constant pushing of new products down my throat. With each product launch the website shifts its focus away from some of the user generated content and focusses on the new camera in question almost exclusively. Reviews, location articles and tipsters all feature the latest product and the next wave of monthly requested articles are guaranteed to feature the new camera heavily. In short the whole effect slowly starts to come off as one big marketing trick. And once it turns from a great community site to just another business selling me something then unfortunately my interest starts to wane. I understand Lomography isn't a charity and are in business to make money but once community members are used as advertising vehicles (post this article to your blog for some piggy points, etc.) the community spirit fades and a soulless marketing machine is all that remains.

If the dreadful articles are my first and the marketing machine my second driving factor behind my departure then the third has to inevitably fall to the photography. Like the articles before it I have to add at this point that it's not all bad. The Lomography website has in fact plenty of talented people there too. I've always argued that despite the medium and capabilities of a particular camera a good photo is a good photo. I still stand by this and thoroughly enjoyed some of the photography featured from people all across the world. But for every one good photo there are hundreds of poor ones.

It is of course subjective as to what constitutes a bad photograph - or “lomograph”. It's not personal taste I'm referring to here though but more the deliberate abuse of film. Washing your roll of Fujifilm’s finest emulsion in a bath of washing-up liquid and drying it out with a hairdryer before shooting is not in any way any kind of photography I care to be involved with. To see praise heaped on the horrible results just heightens my sense of coldness to it. Yet this culture of experimenting has gripped the community as people dream up new ways of destroying perfectly good film to take utterly crap photographs. Did you know for instance that destroying your film with lemon juice produces amazing colour? Or how about the amazing results one can achieve with a mixture of orange juice, washing powder, cider vinegar and lemon flavoured Vodka? It's bad enough that someone thinks these sorts of experiments can produce anything but utter dross but to have the results embraced and liked by a community leaves me dumbfounded.

There are more yet somewhat lesser factors I could pick at as to what alienated and turned me off the community. The piggy point system for one would feature quite heavily as well as the cost of the cameras in the store. Ultimately though these are things I can live with and argue both for and against but the above major points I cannot. Once I felt the site became a marketing gimmick and when user content started to irk me by living up to its hipster reputation it was a speedy switch from Lomo lover to a digital future.

I want to add at this point two things. The first is that I love film. I get excited trying out new emulsions and that seemingly endless wait to see the results once the film goes off for processing. I also love some of the equipment I've had my hands on over the last few years including Lomography cameras (Supersampler, La Sardina, Spinner 360, Diana Mini) and non-Lomography cameras alike (Trip 35, Vivitar UWS, Fujifilm Zoom Date F2.8). The second is that this article itself being an opinion piece is likely to come in for heavy criticism itself. Being a previous regular contributor to the site I may even be guilty of some of the things I've accused others of. Either way the end drew near and now my Lomography account lay dormant waiting to be deleted.

I must admit I was saddened when that last package was carried to the post office before being shipped to its new owner and I will genuinely miss those cameras. The rest though I will not. Maybe Lomography just isn't for me anymore and my criticisms are unfounded? Maybe I'm just not 'hip' enough and don’t 'get it' anymore? You can decide for yourselves. I meanwhile have no regrets leaving a community, a website and a company behind that I unfortunately over time I came to dislike.


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