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If Hipster Cameras Are So Popular, Why Did L.A.'s Lomography Stores Close Down?

If Hipster Cameras Are So Popular, Why Did L.A.'s Lomography Stores Close Down?
Tanja M. Laden

As early as 15 years ago, if you wanted to take a picture, you'd need to bring your film into a lab and wait to see how the images developed. A semi-working knowledge of film speed helped, as did a bit of familiarity with shutter speed, aperture settings, and other variables required to produce a decent image. The whole process was prolonged and tedious, yet it was rewarding, too -- not only because of the anticipation involved, but also because you'd have something to hold in your hands after it was over.

Obviously, this all changed with the advent of digital photography in the late 1990s, but if old-school camera-makers like Lomography are any indication, film isn't going away anytime soon. The hipster-driven manufacturer thrives in the face of digital photography while former film giants such as Kodak and Polaroid have struggled. But even though Lomo believes that "the future is analog," it's definitely not brick-and-mortar. On March 24, the Lomography Gallery Store Los Angeles closed its doors, a little more than three years after its grand opening. The Lomo Gallery Store in Santa Monica also shut down, on January 26, just 15 months after it first opened. Today, the only Lomography Gallery Store on the west coast is in San Francisco.

The original Lomo LC-A
The original Lomo LC-A
Wiki Commons

Lomographic Society International was born after Matthias Fiegl discovered the Russian Lomo LC-A on a trip through Eastern Europe in the early '90s. Charmed by the low-tech camera's ability to yield artsy images, he decided to distribute it himself, with help from his wife Sally Bibawy and friend Wolfgang Stranzinger. They formed Lomography in order to bring cheap, user-friendly film cameras to the public, just as the 35mm film industry began to wane. Today, Lomography is a global brand that keeps the tradition of film-based snapshot photography alive, attracting new customers every year -- most of whom are too young to remember anything but digital cameras. But if Lomography is so popular, why did its L.A. stores close down?

"The space was too big for a brand like ours," says Lomography USA's Chief of Marketing and PR, Angela Bilog, referring to the WeHo branch. In other words, maintaining a store is expensive. But there are a few other reasons why the local Lomo stores may have closed down as well.

Photo of LACMA with Lomo's Fisheye No. 2
Photo of LACMA with Lomo's Fisheye No. 2
Tanja M. Laden

To begin with, going into a store with nothing but plastic cameras is overwhelming. Lomo carries nearly 200 different kinds of 35mm, medium format, and 110 film cameras, including a hand-cranked movie camera, a 360-degree "spinner" camera, and a bunch of panoramic, fish eye, instant, pinhole, and premium cameras, too -- not to mention a long line of lenses and other accessories, along with a range of different camera styles and special-edition products as well.

Bilog says, "As you know, we continue to come out with new cameras, accessories and film every other month, so we aren't going anywhere any time soon!" For example, Lomo just issued an exclusive 35mm "Coachella" camera that's only available at the Coachella boutique, and it isn't being sold anywhere else -- not even online.

The special-edition Coachella camera
The special-edition Coachella camera
Lomography USA

Of course, the Lomo gallery stores didn't just offer cameras, which is why it's kind of a bummer to see them close down. Both locations hosted low-cost special events such as photo-themed, hidden-L.A. scavenger hunts, workshops, and "Lomojourneys" to places like the Venice Canals. The Lomo stores were also generous enough to supply "loaner" cameras to workshop participants who didn't have cameras of their own -- all they needed to buy was the film.

Speaking of film, the Lomo gallery stores also offered film development services, but so do places like Walgreens (at least for the time being), and they're a lot easier to drive to -- which brings us to the next reason why they closed down: driving to either of the Lomo stores was a pain in the ass, not to mention dealing with the parking.

 

Universal City with Lomo's Diana F+
Universal City with Lomo's Diana F+
Tanja M. Laden

"The Lomography community in Southern California will continue to thrive with photography meet-ups hosted by community members," Bilog says. "And of course, through our online magazine and shop."

That right there is probably the biggest reason why the stores closed down. With one million web-based community members worldwide, Lomo really doesn't need its stores. The community has a number of perks that aren't available in stores. Members have free unlimited photo storage along with access to special online offers. Plus, Lomography's home on the web has a system that rewards contributors with piggy points, which can be used towards any purchase made online, excluding film development services. So if you enter a contest, write an article or just take advantage of the "free" piggy points Lomo doles out occasionally throughout the year, you can apply them toward your new camera. Unfortunately, though, the points expire -- so there's an even bigger incentive to buy Lomos online, especially since you can't use your piggy points in stores as currency.

Photo of Chinatown with Lomography Lady Grey B&W film
Photo of Chinatown with Lomography Lady Grey B&W film
Tanja M. Laden

Basically, it's easier, cheaper, and simply a lot more relaxing just to buy Lomos online. It's understandable that Lomography wants to increase brand awareness with its stores, but the manual camera-maker already has a presence in other shops like Urban Outfitters. So how else can Lomo bring its fantastic plastic cameras to the people of Los Angeles without going through the costly and ill-fated exercise of opening (and ultimately closing) a store? Is Lomo considering the pop-up route, perhaps?

"We don't have plans for any pop-up shops in LA at the moment," says Bilog. "But I'm always open to hearing about ways we can partner with other brands and organizations in LA."

Union Station with Lomo's La Sardina
Union Station with Lomo's La Sardina
Tanja M. Laden

Well, here's a thought: with so many food trucks going out of business, maybe Lomo could buy up a couple of the vehicles on eBay and sell cameras that way. They could turn the kitchens into darkrooms and just cruise through neighborhoods, kind of like the ice-cream man, only instead of brightly colored popsicles, you'd be buying a delicious candy-colored camera instead.

Tanja M. Laden manages Flavorpill Los Angeles and blogs at Pop Curious. Follow her on Twitter at @PopCuriousMag and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.


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