At one point, they almost built their own mobile photography app. But instead, Matthias Fiegl and Sally Bibawy decided to stick to their company’s old-school roots. Lomography, a 23-year-old camera company headquartered in Austria, has remained loyal to the art of analog and experimental photography since the beginning, when it first discovered–and then helped popularize–the quirky Lomo LC-A film camera in a shop in Prague. After weathering the onslaught of both digital cameras and the smartphone explosion, Lomography has managed to carve out a durable–and profitable–niche doing things the old-school way: hashtag, no filter.
In an age when hinging one’s business on film and analog optics might sound like a death sentence, Lomography has not only survived, but it’s managed to establish itself as a classically artistic yet hipster-beloved brand with products sold in Urban Outfitters and other major retailers. If you think the mission of the company–encapsulated in its motto, “The future is analog”–sounds counterintuitive, the details of how Lomography evolved to this point are no less unconventional: Along the way, they’ve defied business conventions, encouraged rule breaking, and even, at one point, got a helping hand from none other than Vladimir Putin.
“In the end, you cannot do the same things with mobile phones, because they have different optics,” says Fiegl, who started the Lomographic Society with his wife, Bibawy, and longtime friend Wolfgang Stranzinger in 1992 when they were all art students in Austria. “On your phone, you can design your shot afterward. With analog, you shoot and then a few days later you see the result. It’s a different artistic process.”
That isn’t to say that Lomography hasn’t adapted. “We are not antidigital,” Fiegl says. “We are completely compatible with that world.” In fact, the company has held four very successful Kickstarter campaigns for new lenses and camera bodies. Nor is it focused exclusively on film photography: Its new Petzval 58 lens, modeled in intricate detail after a manual lens sold in Russia in the 1840s, works with modern SLR cameras from Nikon or Canon (a variety of mounting adapters is available). That lens, which gives photos a blurry, circularly distorted background, met its crowdfunding goal in three hours in May of this year, eventually raking in nearly 10 times its $100,000 target.
Most photography may now be done digitally, but in Fiegl’s view, that doesn’t mean that the old way of doing things has to disappear entirely.
“When photography was invented, people thought painting would die,” Fiegl says. “Painting had the role of documenting things. And then photography came. What happened? Painting completely changed and became much more creative. People started to change colors and paint more abstractly. That’s like what we’re doing.”
The company’s new Petzval 58 lens joins a range of vintage-inspired photography products in its lineup, from its flagship Lomo LC-A to the Diana film cameras that have proven to be such a hit among the hipster set. In total, Lomography sells dozens of products, from cheap plastic film cameras to lenses like the $750 Petzcal 58. In recent years, the company has put more of its energy into developing instant film cameras, bringing the 1980s allure of Polaroid to a generation of curious creatives who could be forgiven for thinking that the Lomo camera is named after the Instagram filter (it’s actually the other way around).
Lomography, which became one of the first photography brands to have a presence online when it launched a photo-sharing website in 1996, could have easily carried its digital-friendly strategy into the smartphone era. But instead of building an app of its own when Instagram and Hipstamatic started stealing its thunder among photo hobbyists, the company doubled down on analog.
“Maybe it would have been extremely successful like Instagram,” says Fiegl of a hypothetical Lomography app, an idea the company seriously considered executing. “But most likely it would have been our death. We decided to go along the way we are. We believe in what we are. Plus, you cannot sell an app in a photo store.”
Not that the bricks-and-mortar retail route has been a flawless business strategy for Lomography. In 2013, the company was forced to shut down many of its struggling proprietary camera stores, leaving just five primary shops and shifting its retail strategy out to 35 “embassy stores”–small franchises, essentially–around the globe. “Maybe we focused a little too much on retail and not enough on product,” Fiegl admits. With a globe-spanning community of customers that largely congregates–and shops–online, Lomography learned the hard way that as alluring as the authenticity of analog can be, sometimes digital makes for better business.
But in addition to its embassy shops and retailer partners like Urban Outfitters and J.Crew, Lomography does still operate a handful of its own stores, including the one in Greenwich Village in New York City where I meet Bibawy and Fiegl to interview them for this story. The shop is stocked with an array of instant cameras, experimental plastic cameras and lenses, film, and accessories. On weekends, the staff hosts workshops on photography tips and processing film in unconventional ways, such as using alternative chemicals to alter how colors appear in the final print.
The decline of film photography in the mass market has afforded Lomography a unique and unexpected opportunity. In recent years, the company has fired up defunct film manufacturing machines to produce a product that most other companies have been desperate to abandon: rolls of 35 millimeter and 120 millimeter film. Putting its own experimental spin on product development, Lomography sells rolls of film that are deliberately screwed up, swapping out colors and proudly touting other minor imperfections as features, not bugs.
“There is no producer of analog cameras anymore,” says Bibawy. “So Lomography has this role to keep that alive and develop products that help people of a younger generation step into the world of photography.”
A significant chunk of Lomography’s customer base is made up of hyperconnected millennials, thanks in part to major retail partners like Urban Outfitters, which carries the company’s Diana instant camera and its newer Lomo’Instant (another Kickstarter success story). Bibawy says that young customers often enter their shops and retail partner stores because they’ve grown enamored with apps like Instagram but want to try “the real thing,” and, as Bibawy puts it, “step into the world of photography and understand how this process of getting a picture works.”
The company’s products also have a certain appeal among photography and art students, Bibawy tells me. “The understanding and the theory of photography comes from analog,” she says. “If you start with a digital camera, you will definitely miss a big part of the theory behind it.” Just a few years after many universities shut down their film darkrooms, Lomography is seeing renewed demand for its products among educators and students alike.
Bibawy knows all too well the educational value of old-school photography. It was during her days as an architecture student in Vienna that she, Fiegl, Stranzinger, and other early enthusiasts first discovered the Lomo LC-A, a film camera manufactured in the former Soviet Union. Its distinctive images–sporting the sort of high-contrast, bold colors and dark vignettes now achieved with the tap of a filter on Instagram–immediately piqued their interest. The weird little camera slowly developed a cult following as its proponents started to organize Lomography exhibitions.
In 1992, Fiegl, Bibawy, and Stranzinger formalized the rise of the Lomo phenomenon by founding the Lomographic Society International, a nonprofit that was really more of an artistic movement than anything resembling an actual company. To meet the growing demand for Lomo cameras, the trio found themselves conducting what they call “daring backpack raids” into Russia to buy more.
Before it became a business, Lomography was a community of creatives bound by a common ethos. The 10 Golden Rules of Lomography, first defined in 1992 alongside the launch of the organization, guide the community’s unconventional approach. For example: Bring your camera with you everywhere (day or night), shoot from odd angles, be quick and spontaneous, break rules, don’t overthink it. Lomography also became known for hosting exhibitions, a tradition begun in 1992 in Vienna, where it sold 700 Lomo cameras and unveiled the first Lomo Wall, a huge installation made up of thousands of individual prints.
As it evolved into a proper business, Lomography faced growing pains early and often. For one thing, its core product was produced by a foreign corporation, originally under contract from the Soviet military. Lomography’s first real challenge came in 1996, when the Russian factory that produced the Lomo LC-A realized the product wasn’t all that profitable in a post-Soviet world. The company traveled to St. Petersburg and convinced the factory’s leadership, as well as then Vice Mayor Vladimir Putin, to keep the operations running. The original Lomo factory, which specialized in manufacturing advanced optics for military, medical, and entertainment purposes, eventually did stop producing the camera, but not before giving Lomography its original blueprints and allowing the company to find a new factory in China to keep the camera’s production going.
Lomography has since expanded this model–taking out-of-date Russian optics and devices and having them reproduced in China–to more recent products like the Petzval lens and the New Russar+, a reproduction of a super-wide-angle lens first sold in Russia in the 1950s.
Even with manufacturing more firmly under its own control, Lomography’s unconventional approach has continued to yield some unexpected roadblocks. After finding Chinese engineers to help produce some of its vintage products like the LC-A, Lomography learned the hard way that the significance of its products’ quirks is not always self-evident to others. One of its head engineers in China, for instance, thought he was doing the company a favor when he tried to alter the original design of one of its lenses.
“He goes, ‘Hey, guys, good news!'” Fiegl recounts. “‘I have changed the lens, and this lens now complies to the official Chinese standard.’ We said, ‘No! Please, no.'”
After explaining their unusual approach and showing the engineers some sample photographs, production continued without a hitch, imperfections and all. Supplying this type of background context to partners has become a routine part of doing business for Lomography. Unusual, yes, but Bibawy and Fiegl seemingly wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think the biggest challenge, but also the biggest gift, is that none of us had experience being part of a bigger structure,” says Bibawy. “We were all students, finishing university. We just had an interest in doing something creative. That was a burden because we had to learn by doing things. We had to go through all the failures of building up a company, especially with a worldwide structure. But on the other hand, it prevented us from too quickly going into one direction.
“Sometimes, if you don’t know about how things should be, you’re also free to develop your own way.”