Smena-18 (Pic: Private collection, courtesy of Aidas Pikiotas)
The Smena-18, a camera with a very special task (Pic: Private collection, courtesy of Aidas Pikiotas)

In 1984, the giant Lomo (Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Obyedinenie or Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association) designed a camera that, it could be argued, helped sow the seeds for the analogue photography revival of the last few years.

The Lomo Compact Automat (LC-A) was a Soviet answer to the Cosina CX-2, a scale-focused viewfinder camera released in Japan in 1980. A copy of the diminutive Cosina somehow found its way to the desk of Michail Panfilowitsch Panfiloff, the director of Lomo, via his friend General Igor Petrowitsch Kornitzky, high up in the Soviet Ministry of Defence and Industry.

Kornitzky had been impressed with the camera, especially its robust construction and sharp, contrasty lens. The two men decided Lomo would copy it, and produced a camera that could be gifted to loyal communists: a kind of people’s camera.

The man who had ultimately designed Lomo’s Cosina-alike was Mikhail Grigorievich Kholomyansky. He and his team spent 18 months perfecting this new camera.

The finished LC-A aped almost all of the CX-2’s distinctive features save its swivelling front plate lens cover; Lomo instead went for a much cheaper metal cover operated by a simple switch on the bottom of the front plate. But in almost every other aspect, it was a Soviet industrial copy of Cosina’s pocket-friendly compact; a tough shell to keep the camera safe from harm, a four-zone scale focus system, and an electronic metering system that automatically chose both aperture and shutter speed.

It was so secret that not even Kholomyansky was unaware of the project

It was this last function that helped turn the Cosina copy into a cult. The Lomo’s electronic brain kept the shutter open as long as it needed to give a correct exposure, which helped create psychedelic long exposures on low light.

Even as Kholomyansky was working on his little camera, the top brass at Lomo had a secret project running at the same time, designed not for full-scale production, but to fool the very man who had helped give the camera the green light.

If you’ve ever handled a Lomo LC-A, you’ll know that the camera doesn’t just shoot in auto mode. On the right-hand side of the faceplate is an aperture selector. Most of the time you’d pop it on ‘A’ for Auto, but if you wanted to ensure a certain look, you could choose apertures from f.2.8 to f16. Doing so locks the shutter speed to 1/60 (it’s not something you’ll find on Lomography versions of the camera, by the way).

Lomo LC-A (Pic: PXHere.com)
The Lomo LC-A, the camera that the Smena-18 helped put into production (Pic: PXHere.com)

The LC-A nearly lost its electronic brain for a manual aperture selector and a shutter speed selector (much like the adapter on the Olympus OM-10) on the front left hand side of the camera. Had this beaten the LC-A into production, this would have been called the Smena-18. It was so secret that not even Kholomyansky was unaware of the project.

Lomo had already made millions of simple Triplet-lensed cameras under the Smena name (Russian for “change”) since the 1950s. At the same time Kholomyansky was creating the LC-A, Lomo was also working on an advanced model of the Smena, the Smena-19, a camera that would eventually be produced for four years from 1985 to 1989.

Author Aidas Pikiotas found out just how the camera came to be in his 2013 book ‘Epoch of Lomo: Cameras and People’. The tale of the Smena-18’s construction is like something from a Cold War spy novel.

“The leading designer of the famous Lomo Compact-Avtomat camera is Mikhail Grigoryevich Kholomyansky has nothing to do with this story,” Pikiotas says. “The designer confirmed to me personally that he learned of this camera for the first time from me. How could it happen that the appearance of a new version of the camera was carried out without the participation of its main developer?”

According to Pikiotas, Lomo had been told to create new models by Kornitzky’s ministry. The deadlines had somehow got away from them. They then released that Kornitzky himself “was planning to come to Lomo soon to personally familiarize himself with the results of the execution of the order of the ministry. It smelled of scandal!”

The tale of the Smena-18’s construction is like something from a Cold War spy novel

The Smena-19’s designer, Nikolai Ivanovich Panchenko, agreed to complete the Smena-19 as quickly as possible, but it left the Lomo top brass with a problem – what if it wasn’t ready? Kornitzky was expecting to inspect a new camera. The head of the camera division, Anatoly Potemkin, had to work out a solution.

“Everyone knew that Deputy Minister Kornitsky was the ‘godfather of the Lomo LC-A’. It was obvious that the new camera model was supposed to be some kind of modernisation of it,” Pikiotas says. “Distracting the lead constructor Kholomyansky was not something Potemkin wanted to do – he was fully engaged in setting up production and solving other difficult problems with the LC-A.

“This is only my reasoning, but it is quite realistic that Potemkin contacted directly his friends from the experimental site of the photographic film assembly workshop. A long history of collaboration and mutual respect allowed him to go this way, bypassing all formal obstacles, although this time I think, he also had verbal approval from the factory management.

“The site, which for many years was led by the legendary Arkady Arkadyevich Ryzhik, has been famous since before World War II for its masters of the highest class. Only these engineers could fabricate a camera or movie camera of any complexity. It was here that the mechanical version of the LC-A was born.”

The Smena-18 looked like a carbon copy of the LC-A – apart from the shutter speed selector – but there were some important changes under the skin. The camera had a manually operated shutter and did away with the lightmeter – that mean there was no need for a battery compartment.

Smena-18 and book (Pic: Aidas Pikiotas)
The tale of the Smena-18’s construction was told in Pikiotas’s book (Pic: Aidas Pikiotas)

When Kornitsky arrived for his inspection, arranged on Panfiloff’s desk were, in fact, two cameras – the Smena-18 and the Smena-19. Kornitsky left, apparently satisfied that the Cosina lookalike was an upgrade of the LC-A that would also go into production. Lomo’s managers had managed to defuse a timebomb.

In 1985, the Smena-19 was put into production – only around 10,000 were made, a drop in the overall ocean of Smenas.

But Lomo did its best to forget about the Smena-18. Apart from one mention in a catalogue of photographic equipment for amateurs in 1985, the company kept quiet about the camera, as Pikiotas notes, “hiding the Smena-18 from prying eyes”. It’s very possible only one single camera was made – the very camera that Kornitsky inspected on his visit. Its solitary task of subterfuge completed, it now sits in a private collection, a forgotten fragment in the Lomo LC-A’s story.

Many thanks to Aidas Pikiotas of SovietCams.com and Vladislav Kern of USSRphoto.com for their invaluable help with this article.

Stephen Dowling
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