Nestled near Union Square, amidst the travelers, Chinatown gates, the high-rise hotels and department stores, is the Lomography Gallery Store, a place where you can purchase cameras with a wide array of personality, color, and odd lenses that use the standard 35mm film or the lesser-known 120 roll medium-format film.
The store appeared almost overnight in a vacant storefront on Sutter Street, tucked between a chocolatier and a jeweler. The space was transformed into a gallery of neon lights, showcasing works in highly saturated vivid colors by Lomo enthusiasts (or Lomographers) and local artists. Lomography Gallery Store also features film cameras that can hold their own in a digital world. The all-analog devices, which echo back to an earlier era of postmodern design, are best known for their snapshot quality, light leaks, blurred backgrounds, and warped perspectives. These traits highlight what make up a Lomograph.
My early experiences using Lomography cameras started in my teens. I’d go out with cheapo drugstore film in my Lomo Fisheye and do the normal teenage thing: photos of dogs, friends, my parents making funny faces, as well as plenty of the obligatory adolescent self-portraits. With the Fisheye’s classic wide-angled frame, I learned early on that these dreamy, sometimes out-of-focus images were part of my desired aesthetic.
In early December I was hired by Lomography to help set up the new store, as well as teach workshops and sell cameras. I had applied for the job knowing that Lomography is based worldwide, sometimes acting as the glue in solidifying photography communities. There are already more than 30 stores around the world in places like São Paolo, Toronto, London, Beijing, Paris, Berlin, Taipei, Los Angeles, and Austin. San Francisco’s rich art history was the icing on the cake; adding a store here was the perfect jewel in Lomo’s already lustrous crown.
Lomography has a history of encouraging all levels of photographers to expand their horizons with their cameras. I’m also a wholehearted supporter of this cause. I’ve spent years trying the various types of cameras that Lomo offers, and for this story I picked the five that would help underscore the appeal of Lomography.
The Lomo Kompakt Automat was created in the early 1980s exclusively for the Soviet market. On a trip to Prague, sometime in the early ’90s, two architecture students from Vienna happened to discover the Lomo Kompakt Automat in a hole-in-the-wall camera shop and instantly fell in love with its unique look and compact shape. When they bought it, used it, and developed the prints, a whole new style of photography emerged. Those students unlocked a world of saturated color, multiple exposures, and strange dreamlike vignetting. The look matched the aesthetic they had been hungry for, but which their normal point-and-shoot snapshots could not replicate. Through word of mouth and with help from the Vienna community the Lomographic Society International was formed.
Now, Lomography has embassies or Gallery Stores around the world that encourage photographers to congregate, share, and explore their creative inhibitions. While working at the Gallery Store I’ve met other Lomographers from New York, Los Angeles, Texas, Vienna, and Germany, each bringing his or her own experiences and expertise. These values are in plain sight from the moment you enter a Lomo store – photographers submit their images for use in creating what is called a “LomoWall.” In the SF store, standing more than 20 feet tall, this wall of 500+ images offers a unique analog view into San Francisco’s culture and a “fish-eye” view into the city’s adventurous and exploratory inhabitants.
Other ways that the Lomography Gallery Store spreads its gospel is through its workshops. These casual classes are both low-cost and filled with fun-loving enthusiasts and old-school pros looking to learn a different approach to their skill. I joined a recent workshop on the brand new LomoKino Super 35 Movie Maker, a 35mm motion camera that shoots 144 shots (about 50–60 seconds of footage) on a single roll of film. Lomographer Nicolas Escalada began the class by letting everyone know it was totally OK to interrupt at any point to provide perspective. He also mentioned checking out Lomography’s online Tipsters, which encourage modifications by including step-by-step instructions that show you how to make fish-eye, pinhole, or double exposure movies using the LomoKino.
There are workshops for total beginners, too, where you’ll learn the steps of loading your camera and choosing the right film and techniques for taking a more skillful shot. At the workshops I teach, I frequently get asked what to do with the film once it's shot. It can be processed at any photo-processing center. In San Francisco that includes your neighborhood drugstore, Photoworks SF, Light Waves Imaging, Photobooth, and, of course, the Lomography Gallery Store. But you might not realize that any processed film shot in a Lomo camera can also be digitally scanned using your everyday flatbed scanner and Lomo’s DigitaLIZA device. This device has seriously bridged the divide between analog and digital, extra encouragement for any kind of photographer who loves the look of film.
I’ve got a nostalgic heart and a vintage eye, so shooting film has always been my first choice, but I realize not everyone else’s. At first, it was off-putting to hear everyone say, “You still shoot film?” but as I reflect on what brought me to where I am today I realize cameras are just tools and that a toolbox doesn’t need to be exclusive. Photography is meant to be fun and spontaneous, and cameras are conduits into our imaginations. Lomography offers a chance to experience life in a more surreal way. As Lomo’s slogan puts it, “Don’t Think, Just Shoot.”