Old School Point-and-Shoot

Viennese visionaries have led the recent revival of analogue photography, initiating a rethinking of visual aesthetics

Top Stories | Meredith Castile | December 2012 / January 2013

Photo: lomography.com

The "Analog-gang". With friendly teasing, that’s what fellow students called the trio who shot entirely on film. That was back in 2007 at Vienna’s Graphische, the oldest school of photography in the world. The other students in the class were shooting mostly or exclusively digital.

The young photographers decided to keep the name. In 2008, Katharina Reckendorfer, Marisa Vranjes, and Kristina Satori formed the Analog-gang officially, to "keep analogue on the radar".

Back then they could not have anticipated the recent upsurge in analogue as an "indie" trend.


The end of an era

In 2008, even Polaroid was going under; at year’s end, it would cease production of its instant film. Like artists around the world, Satori bought expensive packs of Polaroid film to preserve in her refrigerator for future use. A medium was dying.

Then two Vienna-based visionaries, Florian Kaps and Andre Bosman, founded the Impossible Project; together they rescued the last remaining Polaroid factory in Enschede, Holland, and joined by entrepreneur Christian Lutz, opened retail locations, made film and even hardware.

But Polaroid is only the most extreme example of analogue’s resurgence as a high-profile trend, in terms of cultural stature if not numbers. Analogue undoubtedly remains a niche market, with film often running €1 a frame and digital photography dominating the mass market. Global sales of film continue to drop yearly, and Kodak declared bankruptcy earlier this year.

But its niche quality and alternative aesthetic is, paradoxically, what is propelling it back into mainstream view. Like vinyl records, vintage clothes, used book fairs, flea-markets, fixed-speed bicycles, even the "slow food" movement, analogue photography draws its cool at least in part from its divergence from the consumer norm.


From Lomo to Instagram

The 20-year-old Lomography Society International (www.lomography.com) is the most prominent global marketer of analogue photography as a hipster trend. The brainchild of another group of Viennese students – Sally Bibawy, Matthias Fiegl, and Wolfgang Stranzinger – it catapulted the Soviet-made Lomo camera onto the Western market. Today, Lomography is a cosmopolitan chain of nearly 40 stores as well as a self-proclaimed movement. Its magazine features elements of the "analogue lifestyle," from Lomo images of Austin City Limits to a DIY guide to converting old audio cassettes into lamp shades.

Satori – who arrived to the interview in classic, rectangular glasses and an understated camel-coloured sweater – is the antithesis of glossy self-fashioning. She selected the Graphische precisely because it let her avoid the pretentions of "becoming an artist." Rather, it offered the rigorous groundwork for controlled technique, from the physics of light to film history.

The Lomoshop in the MuseumsQuartier, primarily attracts browsers and young people, she says matter-of-factly.

Satori and Vranjes told me that film cameras have retailed at high-end clothing boutiques. Props to an arty look and appealing to curious amateurs, they became cultural shorthand for an alternative way of looking at the world. The window display of the Fossil store on Graben recently featured leather cases shaped like old cameras.

Even among those who do not practice the art, analogue is undoubtedly "in". Analogue is the nostalgia of today’s youth for a past they never knew, Vranjes, 25, explains. Imagine a 12-year-old entirely habituated to computer images. Give her a pinhole camera and it seems like magic.

After the initial "tremendous curiosity" about digital photography, Vranjes said, people are starting to return to analogue as a process pleasurable in itself. They talk about analogue as an emotional process quite distinct from analogue technology. They speak of the delay between clicking the shutter and retrieving the developed print from the lab in terms of terror, elation, hope, suspense.

The Analog-gang also shoots with Polaroid cameras. While Polaroid is closer to digital’s instant results, it produces one-of-a-kind images with the liquid softness characteristic of chemical prints.

I asked Satori and Vranjes about apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic that modify digital photographs to look like Polaroids or other analogue shots. Satori responded with an example: She once had a Polaroid blown up for a show. She could not have achieved the same image quality with a Hipstamatic image. Digital’s pixelation becomes more obvious when the image is expanded.

"Is it always possible to tell the difference between analogue and digital prints?" I wondered. Satori and Vranjes replied simultaneously.

"Yes," said Satori. "Not always," said Vranjes.

They exchanged smiles. "Ninety-nine per cent of the time," Satori said. Viewing unfamiliar photographs in museums and galleries, they over and again have verified their ability to discriminate analogue from digital. Analogue processes also yield more flattering portraits. This may be true: Portraitists who work in digital sometimes spend hours retouching their images because of the unforgiving nature of digital, Satori said. With analogue this is less necessary. Analogue enhances.


Celebrating celluloid

I see what she means a week later, in the form of a €2 strip of four silver gelatin photo booth frames. The light grades more smoothly. The blacks are more richly black. Against the background darkness, the faces of my infant daughter and me seem almost lunar in their glow.

The 1960s silver gelatin photo booth in which we posed may be found in the lobby of the Kunst Haus Wien, whose superb exhibition Photo Booth Art runs through 13 January. The booth and show both merit visits. Also, Vienna’s Shooting Girls, which runs through 3 March at the Jewish Museum is another must-see exhibit for analogue lovers.

The silver gelatin portraits were a revelation. Before seeing them, I had been perfectly content with the pixelated ease of digital. I could snap an iPhone picture in Vienna and email it to California instantly. Now I see what I have been missing.

I plan to visit one of Vienna’s numerous photo shops – the Lomo shop in MuseumsQuartier, the Leica Shop (7., Westbahnstraße 40, www.leicashop.com) the Photobörse (8., Lerchenfelder Straße 62, www.digikamera.at/photoboerse), Soyka Second-Hand Cameras (1., Stephansplatz 10 and Fleischmarkt 18, www.soyka.at) – to buy an analogue camera.

In the meantime, I snap a picture of the silver gelatin series with my phone and send it off into the cloud.

Other articles from this issue: