ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Not long before production of the Soviet era's best-selling camera was about to be shut down for good in the spring of 1994, a surprising fax arrived at the factory.
The LOMO-compact had a fan club in Austria, and they wanted to visit the factory.
Lazar Zalmanov, an executive with the Leningrad Optical-Mechanical Organization, thought it was a joke.
"I threw it away. I couldn't believe that someone had a club somewhere that loved the LOMO camera," he recalls.
Imports have long eclipsed the market for the LOMO-compact, a camera that was simple to use but complex to make and has two unique features: Its 32 mm glass lens produces stronger color than modern plastic lenses, and its automatic shutter slows down to allow the worst photographer to take photos in near-darkness without a flash.
After the user focuses the camera by setting the distance to the subject with a tiny lever, everything else is foolproof.
The Lomographic Society -- a 23,000-member group of mostly young Western Europeans who have developed a whole kitschy lifestyle around the hand-sized camera -- persisted in making contact with LOMO executives.
Even now, three years after the Lomographic Society started marketing the LOMO-compact internationally to save it from extinction -- and after several international exhibitions of giant LOMO collages, and after dozens of organized LOMO tours have descended on the faded and nearly empty LOMO factory -- executives here still consider the whole thing a bit of a joke.
"It's indescribable when they come here. They behave without inhibition," Zalmanov says of the cult of LOMO in which true devotees live a sort of blurry, MTV-like still-photography approach to life.
They regularly descend on the LOMO factory, a once-secret defense facility that still produces other optical devices like rocket guidance systems, night-vision devices and endoscopes.
Lomographers live with the tiny camera. Their Web site describes Lomography as the "uncompromising and relentless snapshots of everyday insanity."
Lomographers are more likely to stick their LOMO straight in your face and click than to shake your hand. They walk into rooms and shoot from the hip. They walk on the street and dip down to take an angled shot up from ankle level. They hold the camera over your head and click. They use as many as five or 10 rolls of film a day.
No viewfinder. That would be too calculated, suggests Bernhard Winkler, one of the Austrian founders of the society.
Winkler, a bouncy marketing professional whose life resembles a perpetual "Saturday Night Live" skit, was here recently as leader of 12 paying Lomographers on a "Tour of the Motherland of the LOMO-compact."
"Lomography is about my journey and all I see, about my whole life. For us, technique is nothing. It's here with a flower!" he says, clicking his LOMO at a cafe table bouquet.
"Here with a face!" he says, jumping up and clicking. "That's real. That's LOMO. Wunderbar!"
"There's dog Lomography, it's a great theme for me. And feet, that's another theme," he says, admitting that while the LOMO has introduced him to strangers all over the world, he's also been slapped twice by his subjects. One even grabbed his LOMO and stomped it to pieces.
LOMO executive Zalmanov admits that the Lomographic Society's style is not exactly what company directors had imagined of capitalistic partnerships when they privatized after the fall of communism.
In fact, directors peeked through a window before their first scheduled meeting with Society founders and refused to see them because "they looked like hippies, with hair out to here -- and leather," says Zalmanov.
Austrian students founded the Lomographic Society in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. That's when they discovered the Soviet camera selling for the equivalent of $5 in then-Czechoslovakia.
Even though the camera is made with 400 parts and mostly manual, says Wolfgang Stranzinger, society president, Lomographers find its photos much better than those of modern cameras.
"Japanese technicians would just laugh and say it's primitive," he said. "But I argue that I don't need your auto focus, because it just ruins every photo, or your anti-red eye because I want authentic photos."
In the beginning the students bought hundreds of LOMOS in Czechoslovakia, and smuggled them back for sale at $40 in Western Europe, says Stranzinger.
But, he says, when they heard the LOMO-compact would be discontinued, "we decided that in order to save the camera we'd have to buy a lot of them."
So the society negotiated with LOMO to market the camera outside Russia. They scrambled for financial help, getting a small sponsorship from the German AGFA film company.
Haggling over price was wild, explains Stranzinger, because under the Soviet command economy, plant managers had no idea what it really cost to produce the camera. Plant managers still seem unsure.