Walk around a hip enclave in any major city and you’ll see a new analog counterculture blossoming. You hear it in the warm crackle of turntable needles landing on freshly pressed vinyl records. You feel it as you crack the spine on a Moleskine notebook. It jumps out at you from a thousand letterpress cards and accosts you at board game cafes with tour-hour waits for tables.
As most of us have been lost in the great digital wave sweeping up every aspect of our lives, an analog undercurrent has quietly been gaining strength, defying expectations by reviving the tactile technologies that we’ve so recently jettisoned. One city at the forefront of the revenge of analog is Vienna, where a 21st-century film-photography movement is becoming deeply rooted in the city’s cultural core. From galleries and camera shops to companies creating new cameras and film, Austria’s capital is defining film’s future. Vienna has a rich tradition of photography. The city was at the vanguard of camera technology in the 1840s, and the Habsburg Empire was an early adopter of photography for its military. Fine-art photography blossomed in the 1930s, especially among women. But the current rebirth of analog photography owes itself to Vienna’s proximity to the Iron Curtain. Situated at the frontier of Western Europe (halfway between Paris and Kiev), the city was a crossroads for Soviet and Western diplomats, spies, and culture during the Cold War. After the fall of communism, Viennese photographers became enamored with the quirky, cheap Soviet cameras that were now readily available at Eastern European flea markets within a day’s drive.
Two Viennese students, Sally Bibawy and her husband, Matthias Fiegl, began importing, and later producing, several of these cameras in 1992, calling themselves the Lomographic Society. Lomography cameras produced beautifully distorted, color-saturated photos that stripped photography of its earnest seriousness and translated it into a spontaneous, shoot-from-the-hip, highly social activity. As digital photography blossomed in the early 2000s, Lomography’s following only grew with distribution and stores popping up all over the world to meet the niche analog demand that it aggressively marketed.
Even though Lomography’s imperfect aesthetic directly inspired the look of apps such as Instagram, the tactile, social connection between the company and its users remains a constant at its flagship in Vienna, where exhibits featuring both amateur and professional photographers are on display. “Compared to social media, Lomography is about showing photographs you invested a lot of effort in taking and developing,” says Bibawy. “It’s not sharing something massively. It’s more about constant connections.”
“Something happened that nobody would have believed,” says Florian “Doc” Kaps, “which was this young generation that grew up digitally suddenly discovered the magic of analog photography.” An early veteran of Lomography, Kaps went on to rescue instant film in 2008 with the Impossible Project (the-impossible-project.com), which acquired and re-built the world’s last Polaroid factory from scratch. Kaps now runs Supersense (Praterstrasse 70, Vienna; supersense.com), Vienna’s analog superstore par excellence, where you can buy Impossible film, rent Polaroid cameras, and take classes in rare forms of film photography, as well as other analog pursuits (like letter-press printing, coffee making, and music production). “People thought digital would kill analog,” Kaps says. “It turned out that digital was the best chance for analog to be rediscovered.” It’s not a question of image quality, says Kaps, but of a more tactile, immersive experience.
Unlike digital cameras (which are almost instantly outdated), analog cameras have become coveted assets. Supersense sells vintage Polaroid bodies for many times their original price, while Vienna collector Peter Coeln has become the world’s premier vendor of rare, high-end cameras. At his Leica Shop (Westbahnstrasse 40, Vienna; leicashop.com) and in the auctions he runs throughout the year, WestLicht Photographica Auction (westlicht-auction.com), Coeln sells everything from mint-condition 1960s Kodak cameras for under $100 to limited-edition Leicas that can fetch millions. “A camera is a beautiful object, and if you feel the weight and hear the click, it gives you a completely different experience than a digital camera that has absolutely no soul,” says Coeln. “An old camera has a soul.”
In the past decade, Coeln has put much of his collection of cameras and photography on display in two museums: WestLicht (West-bahnstrasse 40, Vienna; westlicht.com), which focuses on the history of analog-camera technology and images, and OstLicht (Absberggasse 27, Vienna; ostlicht.at), which is a contemporary gallery featuring photographers from around the world. He says that the average visitor to his museums is only 25 years old, the very digital generation that was supposed to kill off analog.
Kaps credits this to Vienna’s leisurely pace and its patient approach to culture, which is more skeptical of rapid change than other cities. “If you wait long enough, there is always a rediscovery,” he says. “This happens in Vienna a lot.”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Lomography