Obscure Camera

Kevin Nguyen has never shot a decent photo, but that doesn’t stop him from reminiscing and reliving his high school photography phase.

I.

There’s a part in Lost in Translation where Scarlett Johansson bemoans her “photography phase.” “I tried taking pictures, but they were so mediocre,” she says. “I guess every girl goes through a photography phase. You know, horses… taking pictures of your feet.”

Maybe I just long to be a detached hipster with a voluptuous figure, but that line has really stuck with me.


The high school photography phase is a rite of passage for self-proclaimed artsy kids who don’t actually have any artistic talent. That was me.

My sophomore year of high school, I was obsessed with Lomography, a brand of cleverly marketed refurbished Russian cameras. They were pocket-sized point-and-shoots that encouraged unmeditated snapshots. The mantra of Lomography was “don’t think, just shoot,” but mostly, it was a brilliant way to sell old, defective cameras.

The flagship model was called the Lomo LC-A, which I would describe with the seldom used phrase “handsomely Soviet.” They look like this:

lomo_lca

The key feature of the LC-A was its faulty Minitar lens, which saw the world with extreme contrasts and impossibly bright colors. The photos it took were unpredictable, and the best results were happy accidents — blurry smears, wildly over-saturated hues, serendipitous double-exposures — as charmingly antiquated as Polaroids, but bolder in their faux-nostalgia aesthetic.

You could adjust the shutter speed and depth of field, but those choices seemed ineffectual. The LC-A was an erratic device with erratic results.

I remember saving up $100 to buy an LC-A off eBay, which was a lot of money for me at the time. It was also an embarrassing sum to spend on something that was outdated and faulty, so I never showed it to my friends, who had all received digital cameras for Christmas. It became a secret hobby for me.


This was my favorite photo that I ever took with the LC-A:

photo01

By no means worthy of any photo gallery. It’s an unintentional triple exposure of Christmas lights at a mall, some traffic lights, and a profile of my friend Davis. If you advanced the film too quickly, the spokes wouldn’t take on the roll, so you would take a photo on top of an existing one. I did this by accident all the time.

I remember picking up my first developed roll from the pharmacy and having a-ha moments as I deciphered each photo on the car ride home. Other photos suffered from a number of other defects.

 
Many had light leaks,

photo02

some were blurry,

photo03

and others were out of focus.

photo04

My senior year of high school, I took black-and-white photography for an art credit. Obviously, I couldn’t use my LC-A, so I had to upgrade to a Pentax SLR that I found in an unpacked box in my parents’ basement.

I learned that as much as photography is about having an eye, it’s about being meticulous. That’s not a revelatory observation, but it surprised me at the time. Maybe I had been spoiled by the simplicity and whimsical temperament of my LC-A.

You can’t really grade students for artistic talent — at least not at the high school level — so the rubric was based on how clear the image was, how perfectly it was developed, how precisely it was matted. I didn’t enjoy the class at all. I spent hours in a darkroom inhaling the reek of developer fluid, all to get an A for my best Ansel Adams impression.


The Minitar lens wasn’t the only flawed component of the camera. The body was shoddily manufactured. After a couple years, the front of my LC-A eventually came loose, and I bonded it back together with sports tape, sacrificing the camera’s functionalist appeal for a few more months of life. But eventually, it fell apart at every seam. That might explain why you hear “made in Russia” as infrequently as “handsomely Soviet.”



 
 
 
 
 

II.

Like a lot of creative interests, my enthusiasm for photography has waned since high school. I don’t even own a real camera anymore. The only photos I take anymore are on my iPhone, because it’s always with me. The lens on the iPhone is pretty good for a phone, but not good enough to ever take a worthwhile picture.

I hadn’t thought about my dearly departed LC-A until I got linked to an iPhone app called Hipstamatic. It mimics the exposures of analog toy cameras with surprising accuracy, but most importantly, Hipstamatic pays homage to their capricious nature.

The app also simulates a variety of different lenses, film, and flashes. You can choose them manually, but it’s more fun to shake the phone to randomize the selections. Hipstamatic even forces you to take pictures through a small viewfinder, and after the shutter snaps, the app makes you wait while the photo “develops” and is “printed.” The superficial delay may seem annoying at first, but it’s there to discourage you from trying to take the perfect photo.

One afternoon, I took photos of boring, everyday things.

 
Like houses,

hipsta01

street signs,

hipsta02

and friends,

hipsta03

just to see how they would develop.


The original LC-As were discontinued in 2005. You can now buy a Chinese-manufactured LC-A+, which looks nearly identical and is likely manufactured with the same Communist craftsmanship. They look like this:

lomo_lca_plus

I recently considered buying one until I saw the $250 price tag. I also read about a new switch on the back that lets you toggle multiple exposures, which to me seems against the spirit of the camera.

 
It makes me wonder: if I had taken the triple exposure intentionally, would I have liked it as much?

photo01

In honor of Scarlett Johansson, here are some photos I took of my feet.

feet01 feet02 feet03

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.