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1 May

A look at Lomography – It’s been about a year since I bought my current digital camera, a Canon Powershot A80 (I took my first photo with the camera on 24 April, 2004). Now that warmer weather is here again, I’ve been taking quite a few pictures. To be honest, I was a bit worried during the winter that maybe I was losing interest in photography, but it turns out that a) I am not a really big fan of cold weather and b) our neighborhood is kind of dull during the winter. Once the weather warmed up, though, the hills turned green, the flowers bloomed, the water began to flow in the creek, the bugs crawled back out of the ground, and I started taking pictures again. It was comforting to know that I hadn’t lost interest after all.

“Photography should be a natural, spontaneous, and fun part of life.”

I don’t really have a philosophy for photography, but many people do. I stumbled across one such philosophy (or “movement,” if you will) some time ago, called Lomography. I had seen the term before—one photography site, for example, referred to pictures as being “lomoized,” and I figured that it was a Photoshop filter or action. Then I saw someone else refer to “lomography,” and a quick Googling coughed up the Lomographic Society International website.

The history of the movement is described in detail on the site (unfortunately, the frames on the site prevent me from providing you with a direct link, but you can read the story by clicking on “The Story” on the left), but basically it was started by a group of Viennese students who purchased some Russian-made Lomo Kompakt Automat cameras. These cameras quickly became popular outside of the former Soviet Union and the Lomographic Society was founded. Since then it has become a worldwide movement. I use the term “movement” because, even though the primary requisite of Lomography would appear to be the camera itself, there is a driving philosophy that purports to determine what is and is not Lomography.

I’ve never used a Lomo Kompakt Automat (or any of the newer cameras now produced by the Lomographic Society), but the photographs it produces seem to be characterized by vibrant and saturated colors and (sometimes severe) brightness falloff. They certainly have a distinctive look, and perhaps that’s what “lomoized” means—to apply a filter or action to a photograph in order to make it look like it was taken with a Lomo.

No matter how distinctive the pictures are, though, a piece of hardware in itself isn’t enough to carry a movement. Fortunately, the Lomographic Society has been nice enough to formulate ten golden rules (again, no direct link, thanks to the wonder of frames), whose purpose is “to erase all traces of your photographic education especially if you never have had one. inhale them carefully and be prepared to forget everything you never wanted to know.”

I must admit that I winced when I read that little blurb on the golden rules page—it just strikes me as trying too hard to be hip. As everyone knows, in this post-modern age, the less sense you make, the more hip you are. Now, at the risk of exposing myself as tragically unhip, I thought I’d take a look at these ten golden rules one by one. Each of these rules is encapsulated in a brief quote that is followed by a longer explanation. (Corrections have been made to the text where necessary and when possible.)

Rule: 01

“Take your camera everywhere you go.”

In bed, in Gorki Park, in a propeller-driven airplane or in the launderette: you grab your camera and everything around you starts to vibrate with life. Be prepared. Keep your camera close at hand and ready for action everywhere and all the time.

This one is pretty straightforward. It is interesting to note that everything around us only starts to vibrate after we grab our cameras. I interpret this to mean that our surroundings take on a new significance when seen through the medium of photography.

Rule: 02

“Use it any time—day and night.”

Every single second has its own unique, light, grey, colourful, woolly, profound, flat mood. Your life is not going to wait for your camera, its rules and the fooling around involved. Either—click—you have captured the situation as it is, or you haven’t.

This rule is also pretty straightforward, but the explanation doesn’t really seem to fit. As we will see, it’s more in line with rule 6 or rule 7, so I will hold off on commenting on this sentiment until then. I do want to comment on the last sentence, though: what does it mean to capture the situation “as it is”? A spontaneous shot (since that’s what the explanation is really talking about) and a well-planned shot both express one interpretation of a situation, but I don’t think you can say that either capture the situation as it is. In fact, I would argue that there is no such thing as capturing a situation “as it is”—you can only capture a situation “as you see it.” Photography, whether spontaneous or not, is about interpretation—about perceiving reality in a certain way. There is no such thing as a completely objective photograph.

Rule: 03

“Lomography is not an interference in your life, but part of it.”

Lomography doesn’t interrupt the direction your life is going, it’s just a significant and integral part of it. Just like talking, walking, sleeping, eating, thinking, drinking, laughing and loving, Lomography is a powerful sign that you are alive.

I suppose the idea here is that, unlike traditional ideas of photography, Lomography is spontaneous (we’ll be seeing a lot of that word in this entry, I think) and does not require meticulous planning and set-up. This is pretty much a rephrasing of the sentiment expressed in the explanation to rule 2, but the value judgment made is different. Here, spontaneity is seen as “a powerful sign that you are alive”—implying that traditional photography is not.

Rule: 04

“Try the shot from the hip”

It is as simple as it is unusual: you don’t have to look through the viewfinder to take a good picture. No, on the contrary! Give yourself more freedom in your choice of perspectives. Hand up in the air, out in the front or behind your back. No limits—just your experience mixed with some luck.

The actual rule here isn’t so much a rule as a suggestion—better wording is found in the explanation: “Give yourself more freedom in your choice of perspectives.” Many digital cameras these days come with LCD screens (some that even flip out and twist), allowing to take the camera away from your face and put it elsewhere while still being able to see what the camera sees. Of course, I think the idea here is to not see what the camera sees, thus tossing out the traditional concepts of composition and framing.

Rule: 05

“Approach the objects of your lomographic desire as close as possible.”

Get close—click—from the waist looking deep into the eyes, full frontal, close up and precisely whatever it is that interests you, laughing as you go, feeling good, so that everyone can see that Lomography is the most obvious and natural thing in the world.

Again, the rule and the explanation don’t jive. The rule itself is very simple, and the idea has been around for a while in traditional photography. Robert Capa, a war photographer in the first half of the twentieth century, said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

The explanation (which is not entirely coherent—perhaps the first “and” should be “at”?), though, goes back to that shooting-from-the-hip thing mentioned in rule 4. The idea of looking your subject in the eyes (assuming your subject has eyes) is appealing on some level, especially when the rule is accompanied by a picture of a cute and playful-looking blonde. Ironically, though, this picture was taken from eye height, not from the hip, which makes you wonder what they’re trying to say here. The explanation ends by saying that you are doing all of this to show people that Lomography is organic, not artificial—which sends yet another message (i.e., that you are some sort of evangelist for Lomography?). It’s all quite confusing (i.e., hip).

Rule: 06

“Don’t think.” (William Firebrace)

Put your head in the ice cold bathtub, hold your breath, count to 100 and let your troubles dissolve. Then jerk your head out again, and with it firmly on your shoulders, grab your camera and hit the streets. Start snapping away, live it and have fun.

This is the central tenet of Lomography, and everything really leads up to (and follows from) it, so it’s amusing that most of the explanation is gibberish. Only the last sentence actually says anything, and that is to just take pictures and have fun. I’ll return to this idea later, after I finish with the rules, but for now I’ll just say: yeah, I can buy that.

Rule: 07

“Be fast.”

A mere tenth of a second makes the difference between Lomography or not Lomography. Just don’t waste any time with settings, adjustments, thinking about it, faffing around and procrastinations. First impressions have a quality all of their own. Trust yourself.

This is basically a rewording of rule 6, but the explanation is probably the most coherent and straightforward of them all. This is the idea of spontaneity again, and here it’s very hard to argue against it. It is true that moments are fleeting, and it is often very difficult to capture those moments on film (or in pixels) if you have to worry about your settings. Professional photographers make a living by capturing these fleeting moments while still getting all the technical stuff right, but most of us aren’t at that level. Most of us have to choose between being fast and being technically prepared, and sometimes choosing the latter means missing the moment.

Rule: 08

“You don’t have to know beforehand what you captured on film.”

Give the random in Lomography a chance. Enjoy your new way of living with random occurrence. You’re not here for Lomography! Lomography is here for you! Lomography only works if the only thing you concentrate on is celebrating your life.

The tense here confused me at first, and then I realized that they meant: “You don’t have to know beforehand what you are about to capture on film.” In other words, you don’t need to have a specific photographic goal in mind when taking a picture. This follows logically from rule 6—that is, if you don’t think, you’re naturally going to introduce an element of randomness into the process. The explanation expands on the idea and makes an important point: that photography is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. I suppose one could ask how this differs from traditional photography, but most likely the intention here is to counteract the tendency in beginners (and others) to focus on techniques and rules rather than the art itself.

Rule: 09

“Afterward either”

Wow, that look’s great, what’s that, where was I there? Your brain is running on top speed, your memory is spinning, your history is tumbling. No, you don’t have to know exactly what’s on the film even afterwards. Just read between the lomographs.

This follows naturally from rule 8 (which in turn follows from rule 6), and really only serves to reassure those who might be freaked out by randomness and spontaneity. Move along, nothing to see here.

Rule: 10

“Don’t worry about any rules”

Forget the ten golden rules—discover your very own Lomography, immerse yourself in what’s going on, do it and do what you want but do it now.

You had to see this one coming from a mile away. This rule addresses the paradox inherent in a set of rules about ignoring rules—it is the paradox that every radical movement has to eventually face. Radical movements are chaotic alternatives to the established order, but in order to sustain themselves and not wink out of existence without warning (which is what they would do if they remained chaotic), they need to establish an order of their own. The message is: “Forget about order—except our order.” I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, or disingenuous, it’s just an inevitable paradox. By including this rule, they are at the same time saying that they recognize this paradox exists and trying to give the impression that it doesn’t.

So there they are: the ten golden rules of Lomography. There’s a lot of clutter there, but there is an underlying theme: photography should be a natural, spontaneous, and fun part of life. It shouldn’t be about technical stuff like f-stops and shutter speeds. To be perfectly honest, I think I could learn quite a bit from the Lomography movement. I still feel self-conscious about taking my camera out at times, and I cannot tell you how many moments I have let slipped by because I was embarrassed to take a picture. I am an introvert, and it’s hard for me to just let loose with my camera like a postal worker with a shotgun. I prefer to blend in with the crowd—of course, that’s a bit hard to do as a white guy in Korea, but you get the idea.

I wish I could be more spontaneous with my photography. When it comes to taking pictures around my house and neighborhood, I have no problem running around like a lunatic with my finger on the shutter button, snapping away. But as soon as there are other people around, I draw back into my shell. I’m working on a photography project these days that requires me to take photographs in areas with lots of people (and there’s no way I can be subtle about it), and I hope that this will help me overcome my self-consciousness. (I’m not going to say what this project is until it goes live on the internet, probably toward the end of summer or beginning of fall this year.)

While spontaneity and freedom are good, though, there is such a thing as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In their attempt to “erase all traces of your photographic education,” the Lomography folks may have gone a bit too far. What bothered me most about the ten golden rules—even more than the desperate attempts to be hip and cool—was the implication that traditional methods of photography are inferior to Lomography. Rules 2, 3, and 5, in particular, make value statements about Lomography—and thus make value statements about traditional photography (i.e., “photographic education”), which is what Lomography is being contrasted against.

As I mentioned in my discussion of rule 2 above, the whole idea of capturing the situation “as it is” is a misleading one. Yet they are implying that only by following the core tenets of Lomography (“don’t think,” “be fast,” etc.) can you capture the correct interpretation of the situation. This ties into rule 7, of course, and it is true that you can let moments slip by, but a carefully planned shot can just as easily capture a moment as a quick, spontaneous shot. They try to make it black-and-white, do-or-die: either you have or you haven’t. But who’s to say the next moment doesn’t hold its own treasures? It just seems to be going too far in an attempt to foster spontaneity.

The implication in rule 3 is that traditional photography is not “a powerful sign that you are alive.” Traditional photography, in other words, is dead, stagnant, and static. Rule 5 echoes this sentiment, implying that traditional photography is obscure (not obvious) and unnatural. While I understand the value of spontaneity, to dismiss planning and thought is counterproductive. The “rules” of traditional photography have been developed over a long period of time by countless talented artists—if they weren’t any good, they wouldn’t have lasted for so long. The same photographic principles developed by artists using the bulky cameras of old apply to today’s digital cameras as well.

What it all comes down to is this: rules are not inherently bad. Rules can be very good, providing guidance and serving as a stepping stone to creativity. When I studied creative writing at university, we learned that it was OK to break the rules of the English language—as long as we knew what rules we were breaking. There is a difference between a beginning writer producing syntactically flawed text and E. E. Cummings toying with capitalization and punctuation.

Rules become bad when they congeal and harden into unmoving obstacles that inhibit creativity rather than encourage it. Rules become bad when they become more important than the art for which they were created. Be it photography or creative writing or some other art form, beginners often adhere closely to rules, using them as anchors in the sea of uncertainty. Rules are established and safe, so it is tempting to fall back on them even after leaving the beginner stage. As long as you stick to the rules, it’s hard to go wrong. The problem, of course, is that sticking to the rules doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll go right, either. You may end up with a technically flawless piece of art that is utterly devoid of creativity or imagination.

This is what Lomography rebels against, I think, and it is a noble cause. The more deeply established the current order is, the more radical the movement to shake that order must become. Ultimately, though, the most desirable path is a compromise between the established order and the radical movement. In the case of photography, I believe this path is one that is founded on guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules. The “rules” still have their place—and it is a very important place—but they should not hinder creativity.

The question I ask myself is: how does this apply to my own photography? As I mentioned above, I am definitely on the side of the established order. I need more chaos to oppose my structure. I need to be more free and unfettered with my photography, and not care so much about what others think. Unfortunately, this is not just a photography issue with me, but an aspect of my personality. That sort of change does not come easy, and my psyche fights each and every attempt at such change. Photography is just one manifestation of this. But maybe it will be easier to change in that one small area, and maybe that change will work its way up into my personality in general. I don’t even know if my psyche works that way, but I suppose it’s worth a shot.

Anyway, I know I can’t completely change myself overnight (or even over a lifetime), but I am going to try to be more spontaneous with my photography. If I ever get caught up on my backlog of photos, maybe the results of this attempt might even make their way into the Imagery section. We’ll see if I can learn anything from Lomography.

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