It seems my last article ruffled some feathers. I can’t say I’m that surprised – you can’t sit down and call a much-loved company useless without taking a bit of heat as a result.
What did surprise me is that some people didn’t see the slightly tongue-in-cheek mockery of it all – and that they didn’t appreciate that I have a past history of such things. One reader actually used the phrase “unmitigated snark” to describe my writing in the article, which warmed the cockles of my heart somewhat. I’m not even being facetious – I genuinely thought it was a brilliant turn of phrase.
At any rate, I felt maybe it was time I finally wrote down some of the criticisms I have of Lomography in one long post – just to clarify my stance once and for all (and so that people don’t think I’m just the ranting caricature I occasionally like to portray).
It’s worth noting, before I go any further, that the following points are all my own opinions. They are things I am legally entitled to say, and things I believe are legitimate criticisms based on actions that have taken place in the public sphere. I may occasionally write in a manner that suggests I am talking in absolutes, but you are perfectly entitled to disagree. In fact, I encourage you to. But if you do, I strongly suggest you come back to this article in twelve months, and see if you still feel the same. I can almost guarantee that you won’t.
With that out of the way, here goes:
Lomography is not helping film photography. In fact, it is the single most detrimental factor in film’s long, slow demise.
That’s a bold statement, I know. And it seems nonsensical at first: after all, Lomography has been responsible for a big upsurge in film usage. This is a verifiable and undeniable fact. So how do I reach that conclusion?
Well, as listeners to the podcast may know, my re-entry point to photography was a Diana Mini. Yes, I could once have been considered a “Lomographer”. My girlfriend at the time bought me one when she ordered herself a Diana F+ (which, amusingly, never worked, but that’s a story for another time), and as a result I started taking photos for the first time since the digital boom in the early millennium. Of course, I appreciated the medium, but I was destined never to stay within the ideology I was presented with. I, like many other graduates of the Lomography School, am a studious type. I like to learn. I like to understand. I like to develop (pun fully intended and enjoyed).
And the problem that is inherent within Lomography is that they don’t allow for this sort of personal artistic growth.
See, Lomography is not a company run by artists. It is not even a company run by photographers; the founders and owners of the company are marketers. This shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone, but the ramifications of this are massive. They are not interested in making you into an artist. They are interested in selling, pure and simple – and the product that they’re selling is basic. Moreover, it is purposefully basic. They saw a niche in the photographic market and realised that by capturing a demographic that was being left behind by an ever more convoluted and technology-based medium, they stood to make lots of money. And they have. They’ve been very shrewd with how they managed this; firstly, they marketed their product in binary opposition to the predominant ideology (digital photography) to capture the disillusioned. Then, they moved to position the product as a lifestyle to not only keep them involved, but to ensure they’d be willing to throw more money at Lomography; it’s what allows Lomography to sell bags, clothing, keyrings and the like.
Now, Lomography aren’t the only company to do such things – Leica are notoriously bad for doing much the same, but at the other end of the scale. I don’t actually blame Lomography for that. Nor, really, do I blame them for marking up their product so highly – even if it is somewhat galling to see people who are new to film being tricked into paying such huge prices for average film (and worse, paying such huge prices for expired film. Only Lomography could charge more for an out-of-date product). After all, free-market capitalism – whether you agree with it as a political and economic system or not – is all about charging whatever the market will allow.
The issue here is one of quality, and how it is perceived.
Lomography have successfully managed to bring to market some brilliant concepts. The Supersampler is an ingenious design. The Sidekick bags are actually remarkably usable. The Lubitel 166+ has some fantastic improvements over the original Soviet TLRs (which, it should be noted, were purposefully basic purely to keep them cheap; Lubitel translates to Amateur). But, as far as I can tell, all of the above have been produced to the lowest possible cost, and quality control at the Lomography factory is so low that it even outstrips the traditional Western view of Soviet products. A lot of their products simply do not work as intended out of the box; there’s Belairs that cannot focus to infinity. Dianas with a shutter that doesn’t function. Flashes on Actionsamplers that often don’t fire for the fourth frame. Then you’ve got the breakdowns: Diana Minis that have shutters that slow down to unusable speeds before ten rolls have gone through them. Supersamplers where the advance breaks. LC-As that inexplicably jam.
Even their bags aren’t great: I used a Sidekick for a while, only to find the plastic clips on the strap started to crack and the friction of the bag against my hip burned a hole into the cheap canvas. The flaps that covered the pockets on the front were held down with the smallest piece of velcro possible, and as a result, they soon refused to stay closed.
So, in effect, you’re paying premium prices for defective or unreliable products. Not only that, but Lomography’s marketing plan accommodates these issues by embracing them rather than fixing them. Unreliability becomes spontaneous unpredictability.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, you have customer service that is dubious at best; reports were rife across the internet during the Belair’s post-release uproar of people who were attempting to return a faulty product only to be ignored. The Lomochrome Purple which was so eagerly awaited became bogged down in a quagmire of uncompleted pre-orders and a release date that kept being pushed back. I, myself, fell foul of their customer service; I spent ages trying to return a “refurbished” Fed lens that was so congealed with dried-up lubricant that it wouldn’t focus, only to be told I had to send the entire Fed back – body, case, lens and all. It didn’t matter that the body worked, or that it would cost me a lot more in postage; their position was immoveable. Eventually, not really seeing any other option, I relented and sent the lot back, with a note explaining that the body was fine and I just wanted the lens relubing.
What I got back was a totally different lens, in a case with a broken strap, and a unnecessarily replaced body that wasn’t in as good a shape as the original.
But even if you put the company aside and think of Lomography as an artistic movement, as I explained previously it is one that is horribly reductive and designed purposely to keep people consuming without question. When they established their position in the market, they understood that they had to ringfence it; allowing for artistic and intellectual growth would allow people to move on to cameras that offered more control, more customisation, more individuality. It would cause their consumers to head elsewhere – eBay, for example, where higher quality “vintage” fully-manual cameras could be had for a fraction of the price of Lomography’s toys.
As such, they established the Lomographic Rules in their marketing; the ten commandments of Lomographic practice. At first glance, they seem liberating, but when you are saying to people “Don’t think! Throw your intellectual socialisation over board, let the unfiltered flow of information circulate freely, untreated and unrated in your mind”, you’re actually trapping them within your system. They go further later on in this manifesto: “forget about your education, socialisation, indoctrination, knowledge and everything you’ve learned and not learned about photography.” This is dangerous. Education is liberation. To quote Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century philosopher; “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free”. Encouraging people to reject education is the gateway to cultish behaviour, and not the path to self-enrichment.
But Lomography have gone with that concept anyway, and it works quite well for them.
During my time in the Lomographic community, I saw a lot of people who were fully immersed in the ideology. They shot a roll of film every single day. They bought every single product as soon as they were released. They were always full of praise for their overlords. Even when something went wrong, they shrugged it off and towed the party line of unpredictability as a source of beauty. These are the people who will no doubt be hitting VIP Level 4 on Lomography’s latest marketing ploy. (Seriously, how can you spend £1000 on Lomography products in one month? That’s worrying behaviour by anyone’s standards.)
But within the community, there was dissent. I was seeing a lot of people who, like me, were finding the lack of intellectual development frustrating. The “liberation” of thoughtless photography had become the shackles that were holding them back. Worse still were the ones who were disillusioned; faced with a bright, shining PR assault of gloriously over-saturated cross-processed images but with no real education, help or guidelines as to how to achieve those results, they were feeling cheated. My aforementioned girlfriend, in fact, was one of those. I’d gone off and figured out the tricks, and saw the Emperor stood naked before me. I graduated, I moved on. She hadn’t. And because she was stuck in the Lomographic mode of “don’t think!”, the results were so inconsistent that she felt like she was constantly burning money. And she wasn’t alone.
If you go on the Lomography website and spend time going through the Lomohomes, you see a lot of dead, inactive accounts. The attrition rate in their community is high. Now, I don’t care about this – at least as far as it pertains to Lomography. In fact, I find it quite amusing. Watching from the outside as they scramble to reposition themselves in the marketplace gives me a distinct sense of schadenfreude. If you don’t understand what I mean by this, you have to look at how the rhetoric in their marketing has changed; when they started, they were passionate about film photography. Then, about two or three years ago, they abandoned that term – gradually – in favour of “analogue” (or “analog”) photography. This then became attached to the term “analogue lifestyle”. This was an important shift, because it allowed them the rhetorical space to market products for digital photographers without – supposedly – losing face. That’s why the Petzval lenses were shown on DSLRs in the Kickstarter campaign. That’s how they could justify the sale of lenses designed for mirrorless digital cameras.
But what does this have to do with my original point – the idea that Lomography are doing more harm than good to film photography?
Well, it’s quite simple. Not only are they not retaining their userbase, they’re not keeping them within a film ecosystem, and I think the above signals that they know that. I wish I had exact figures, but it would appear (based on real life examples from a community I was once fairly active in) that for every ten people who start with Lomography, two or three “graduate”, one remains in their fold, and the remaining six or seven, sick of the inconsistency and cost, simply stop shooting film. How many of them move back to digital photography and how many simply give up photography as a hobby is irrelevant; that’s one less person buying Portra and keeping Kodak afloat. That’s one fewer roll of HP5+ a week. That’s one more person who isn’t contributing to the yearly sales of FP-3000b.
Up to now, Lomography have been doing fairly well at roping in newcomers to fill that void, but it’s simply an unsustainable business plan. Eventually, there’ll be no one left to indoctrinate. Nate and I have speculated in the past that the Belair – a higher-end product – may have been their attempt to capture a more serious market and, as a result, retain more film shooters. If it hadn’t been such a badly-produced camera, it might have worked.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the unreliability and cheapness of the product and the homogenous, badly-executed and cliché results that generally are produced by them are a polarising force. Lomography – by structuring the discourse as a binary opposition for marketing reasons, as mentioned earlier – have marketed film as a lo-fi product for so long that now it is believed by many to be an inherently inconsistent, blurry and low-quality medium. They’ve marketed themselves into a corner; the rise of smartphone apps have made the aesthetic easily attainable, but they’ve not presented the true tonal richness and quality of film, so what’s left to bring people in? And how do you convince digital photographers to pick up a good quality SLR, which are now cheaper than ever, when the common public discourse around film is that it’s a largely dead format that’s only being used by hipsters in toys?
Now, let’s get something clear: I’m not railing against toy cameras on the whole here. I’m not going to walk up to every person I see with a Holga and call them an idiot – even if I might enjoy mocking/provoking Simon Ponder at every possible opportunity. As much as I don’t enjoy the aesthetic, I can appreciate the sense of liberation and fun. But for too long there’s been no counterpoint to Lomography’s media assault, and now it’s coming back to bite them – and us – in the ass.