How two brothers from Wisconsin changed iPhoneography

Hipstamatic camera iPhone


UPDATED 02.08.10: Now with a link to our follow-up story, “Wausau City Pages uncovers the real Hipstamatic backstory?”

The case can be made that the hottest camera app in the App Store right now was created in 1982.

Hipstamatic App Store link: (App Store link: Hipstamatic – Hipstamatic, LLC) is one of the most popular photography apps in the App Store at the moment. It’s in the Top 5 in multiple countries. Flickr groups have popped up. The #hipstamatic hashtag is all over Twitter. The app has universally gotten rave reviews, and deservedly so. The environment, the sounds, the photos — it recreates the fun of shooting with an old, plastic, toy camera.

Read Life In LoFi’s full review here.

The original Hipstamatic camera is almost an urban legend. Part of the mystique of the new app is its backstory — that it’s based on the old, plastic camera that few people had heard of, let alone seen.

The story starts in North Central Wisconsin in 1982. While attending art school part-time, brothers Bruce and Winston Dorbowski came up with an idea for bringing photography to the masses cheaply. Inspired by an old Russian plastic camera and the Kodak Instamatic, they worked from their small riverfront cabin, developing and hand-producing the all-plastic cameras which they called Hipstamatic.

The original was a square frame 35mm camera. It had the ability to swap lenses and use multiple film formats. Each one had a yellow shutter button which became sort of cult icon. Only 157 of the cameras were ever made — the family currently has only 3 of those.

In 1984, Bruce and Winston were killed by a drunk driver on their way home from signing a lease on a new building that would have been their manufacturing plant. The Hipstamatic was never mass produced.

There’s very little history available on the original Hipstamatic camera. Most of what’s available is on their brother Richard’s Dorbowski’s blog, The Great Hipstamatic 100. An excellent read and a good tribute.

UPDATE: Actually, an intrepid reporter from the Wausau City Pages has followed up on this story and found that there is no evidence to support the Hipstamatic backstory. Click to read our follow-up story, “News: Wausau City Pages uncovers the real Hipstamatic backstory?”

The Hipstamatic might have been little more than a footnote in the history of quirky lo-fi cameras had it not been for two graphic designers from the Twin Cities. The iPhone version of HipstaMatic was created by Ryan Dorshorst and Lucas Buick with Synthetic Infatuation. Not only have they created one of best retro camera apps, they’ve also recreated the analog camera user experience. From the jet-black unibody faux-plastic case to the viewfinder to the great Hipstamatic Owner’s Manual, the app is loaded with little details. Everything about Hipstamatic is a loving nod to the retro, analog camera experience.

Life In LoFi was able to ask Ryan and Lucas a few questions. Below, they talk about the Hipstamatic, the backstory and how they got involved with this rare, classic cult camera.


LOFI: Why LoFi? What got you interested in “toy” cameras?

L & R: We have always been obsessed with all things retro, vintage, and mechanical, as well as tech toys and gizmos. The physical experience of taking photographs has really been lost over the past several years. 10 years ago you had to be much more intimate with your camera. Just by removing the need to put your face up to the viewfinder, we have lost that. Polaroid has always been a favorite at Synthetic. We have a collection of shots of people that stop by our office or would come to our exhibitions, but now we have run out of film.

LOFI: In addition to being a really cool app, the whole package — the backstory, the user interface of the camera, even the downloadable owner’s manual — this is also a tribute to the Hipstamatic 100 and to its story. How did this all start for you?

L & R: We become aware of this obscure toy camera about a year ago through a family member. We had a hell of a time tracking down Richard Dorbowski. His blog went offline just after we reached out through email, and we didn’t hear back until we finally got a phone number, which was over the summer (we have since helped him put the blog back online). Anyways, the idea of creating an app was something that we wanted to do for quite some time — actually, the idea of having a product to sell instead of working with our clients was a big factor in going into app development. As a brand consulting and design studio, Synthetic has always been about creating experiences, so when it came to developing the Hipstamatic we set out to recreate the experience of having an analog device yet make the best possible use of the iPhone technology.

The story of the original Hipstamatic was something that we really related to. The idea of a couple of guys from nowhere that set out to innovate and inspire an entire industry couldn’t have possibly hit any closer to home. After meeting Richard and seeing the vision of Winston and Bruce, we really wanted that product to live.

LOFI: With only 157 of the cameras ever produced, this is probably the rarest, most hard-to-find lo-fi camera in existence. I read on Richard’s Hipstamatic blog that you got to spend some time with one of his cameras. I’m envious that you got to handle one. Tell me about your hands-on with the actual camera.

L & R: Over the summer we did get to play with one of the original Hipstamatic 100s, As it turns out the sucker was much more of a prototype that you would have imaged. But it was super fun to be able to change lenses, and we even rigged up a modern Canon lens to the Hipstamatic, which was the inspiration to the Lucifer VI. All in all, the original camera was a ton of fun. We even dropped off the film at the drug store for processing, which is something neither of us have done in years. Only a handful of our images turned out but for us it was beside the point.

LOFI: Did you get to keep one?!!!!

L & R: Sadly no, Richard has only three cameras left, and of those only one of them is really usable.

LOFI: How was the process to capture the look of the Hipstamatic and get it from film to iPhone?

L & R: We took a lot of creative license with making the Hipstamatic. Though the idea of the camera was from the Hipstamatic, the end result is more of a mashup of all of our favorite things about lo-fi cameras. The flash charge sound, for example, is something that reminds us of family vacations and our childhood, so we had to add it.

LOFI: I hope this is a huge app for you. So far, it looks like it is. What are your plans for Hipstamatic and beyond?

L & R: We are completely blown away by the community that has begun to pop up since the Hipstamatic came out a few weeks ago. We are currently working on an update that will include more manual control of the camera, and more unpredictable effects. The Hipstamatic is a way to spark creativity and allow people to see things in a new way. We would like to start putting together exhibitions of people’s prints and we are looking for a partner to allow people to order prints directly from the app or the website.

We are also working on an app to change the way users manipulate images taken outside of the Hipstamatic. That’s really all we can say at the moment.

Longterm goals for Hipstamatic are all about the community and inspiring creativity in people. There is nothing better than seeing someone who doesn’t consider themselves ‘artistic’ uploading a HipstaPrint to Flickr or sharing it on Facebook or Twitter.

LOFI: Any other favorite analog lo-fi cams? Other than Hipstamatic, what are your three favorite camera apps in the store right now?

L & R: Hands down, ShakeItPhoto (App Store link). Nick Campbell, the creator, is the most giving designer/entrepreneur ever. According to Facebook, he has another app in the works. I have seen some test images and they look amazing. We would love to have him create a HipstaPak for the Hipstamatic.

LOFI: Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time. Any parting words?

L & R: We would like to thank everyone for feedback they are sending with feature request, problems, praise, etc. The more we hear from our users the better we can make this app.


UPDATE: A recent issue of City Pages in Wausau, Wisconsin features a story about hometown hero and one of Hipstamatic’s creators Ryan Dorshorst. City Pages’ Deputy Editor Rick LaFrombois, who wrote the story, dug pretty deep into the Hipstamatic backstory. What he found indicates that the Hipstamatic backstory may be “a myth.” Read the full story here.

We’ve got a lot more Hipstamatic news throughout Life In LoFi, including all the latest on updates and HipstaPaks. Check out all the news by clicking here.