visual spectrum: Oakland nights with an LC-A
Sometime just before I graduated from university in 1993, I completely lost the desire to shoot film. For several years before I made the decision to give up on photography I had been studiously learning how to develop my own film and make black and white prints. I would sometimes spend the entire day in my friend’s well-equipped darkroom, walking through the darkroom door in the morning and only emerging from the submarine red world of the safelight when it had already long been dark outside. Back then the simple act of developing film and making prints was an excitement in itself, a practice that somehow carried the drama of aesthetic seriousness with it. To make a print was to ghost, however slightly, into the realm of Antonioni’s Blowup, or the photo-heroics of Al Rockoff — the photojournalist in The Killing Fields played by John Malkovich — as he desperately attempts to improvise a darkroom in which he can develop and print the fake passport photo that he hopes will save the protagonist of the film, the Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. In the end it doesn’t work, but the scene holds a sense of political commitment so strong that it has forever colored my conception of the politics of photojournalism (I was about 14 when I saw the film, and impressionable in all the right ways).
As the thrill of developing and printing my own film began to wear off, however, I became less and less satisfied with the photographs I was producing. This may have partially been related to a spate of disasters that accompanied my attempts to develop several rolls of film that I had shot with my first medium-format camera, a Nipponflex, but in fact the reality was that my photography felt less and less inspired to me with every roll I shot. It didn’t help that I had several friends at the time who were seriously aspiring photographers producing work that was vastly superior to mine in every way imaginable. The last roll I remember shooting was a series of photographs documenting a day of AFM motorcycle races at Sears Point Raceway. It was a roll of color film, and when I got it back from the camera shop all I had was a pack of depressingly amateurish snapshots. Out of the entire roll, only two shots were even worth looking at. I gave my camera away and I didn’t shoot another roll of film for a full five years.
Then, sometime in 1997, a friend of mine brought over a magazine featuring the LOMO LC-A, which at that time was a fairly mysterious entity. There was all kinds of talk about “lomography” and “shooting from the hip,” but the article itself wasn’t so clear about exactly how the LC-A worked, or what was so special about it. It did, however, emphasize that Moby was a fan of the camera, which lent it some sort of cachet, I suppose. More importantly, 1997 was the year that LOMO launched their website, and also the year that I first got internet access in my own house. In addition to the legions of amazing photographs that were being uploaded by fans of the LC-A it was the look of the camera itself that sold me, with its sliding faceplate like some kind of militaristic blast shield. I think what I liked most about these photographs was their dreamlike quality and the way they exuded a sense of sheer resistance to anything having to do with technical perfection. Using the LOMO completely changed the way I thought about photography. In the past I had always had an idea of how a photograph would turn out before shooting, and when it didn’t turn out like I had imagined I became disappointed. With the LOMO I never had any idea about what a photograph might look like when it came back from the camera shop. I started shooting spontaneously, almost as if I wasn’t using a camera at all, but rather a small experimental box for collecting images that didn’t belong to either my eye or to my mind. When I would get prints back from the camera shop, it was almost like going through a set of photographs taken by someone else. It was anti-possessive photography. I no longer had any desire to “capture” particular images, but instead used the black box of the LC-A as a kind of arcane device for chance exploration.
I’m not currently shooting with an LC-A (the one that I have needs a little bit of love, care, and repair), but my early experiences with the LC-A definitely inform the way I shoot now, as well as the variety of subjects that I shoot. Even when I’m using a manual camera and have to set all the parameters I try to disappear in the instant and let the image ghost itself into the world as a consciousness that floats — like an unowned meniscus — in the space between photographer and subject.
The images on page are from the very first roll of film I shot with an LC-A, and they mark my reintroduction into the world of photography. Naturally, they were shot using the cheap LOMO 100 film that came with the camera, and the negative quality has degenerated a bit over time. Even now these images hold a certain charm and charge for me, the feeling of an unexpected jackpot of aesthetic rightness.
Filed under: culture, personal, photography, sweet story of Trout Monroe | 5 Comments
Tags: chance, film photography, first roll of film shot with an LC-A, LOMO LC-A+, lomography, rediscovering photography