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She said the man in the gabardine coat was a spy.
I said: 'Be careful, his bow tie is really a camera.'
- From 'America' by Paul Simon.
If the man Paul Simon sang about was indeed a spy, then his camera was almost certainly a Minox. It would be possible to hide one in a bow tie, but difficult to use it there.
Minoxes are the cameras used by real life spies the Falcon and the Snowman. The CIA admit that the KGB provided one to John A Walker Jr, which he used to photograph sensitive National Security Agency codes.
A Minox III was found, and then mysteriously not found, among the possessions of Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of JFK.
Sean Connery uses a Minox in You Only Live Twice, and Minoxes also feature in the films Grosse Pointe Blank and Honeymoon in Vegas. The Duke of Edinburgh has a gold Minox.
The camera's inventor was one Walter Zapp, who died on 17 July, 2003.
Mars Bars are bigger than Minoxes. Leathermans multi-tools are about the same size. Indeed, Minoxes have been hidden in the wrappers of chocolate bars. You could fit two of the EC (one of the three models in current production) side by side in a packet of cigarettes.
Like many objects created in the 1930s, the design is surprisingly modern. Quite often, when people first see a 40-year-old Minox, they assume, from noticing the aluminium case and smooth mechanism, that it is the latest miniaturised fashion item from Japan. A Minox is far more interesting, and classier, than that.
From Riga with Love
The history of the Minox is the history of espionage and the Cold War. The first Minoxes were made in Latvia, between 1938 to 1943. Manufacturing was disrupted by the Second World War, and resumed, in Germany, in 1948. These early Minoxes (the brass and steel Riga, and the aluminium III and IIIa) were mechanically and optically sophisticated, but required the user to set the distance and shutter speed manually.
By the 1950s, America was one of the largest markets for Minox cameras, and different models focussed in inches or in centimetres, for the different markets. Focussing is, literally, a matter of inches. The Minox B (1958 - 1972) offers distance settings from eight inches to infinity, which can lead to confusion when setting the dial. The B is slightly longer than the older cameras, and incorporates a light meter, but is still essentially a mechanical camera. In 1969, the first electronic Minox, the Minox C, was introduced.
Minox still manufacture cameras. There are several versions in their current sub-miniature range:
The LX2000 is the ultimate Minox available today. Sleek, black and gold, handmade, very sexy and very expensive.
The TLX and CLX are the 'regular' versions of the LX. Still sleek and sexy, and still rather expensive.
The ECX is the smallest production camera in the world, is fully electronic, and made of glass-reinforced plastic.
- The MX is shiny and curvy, still a Minox, but is clearly a toy.
As well as sub-miniatures, Minox also make 35mm cameras and optical instruments.
Ker-lick Ker-lick Ker-lick
Early Minoxes are a miraculous combination of mechanical and optical engineering. The film is held against the back of the camera in a curved plane. This combines with the unusual focal length of the lens to deliver pin sharp images to film, which is much closer to the lens than in conventional cameras.
In the classic Minoxes, pulling the ends gently apart exposes the viewfinder and lens. The shutter is operated by a small button on the top of the camera. In the early models, closing the camera feeds the film forward for the next shot. There is something very satisfying about operating such a finely engineered mechanism, and much of the fun of owning and using a Minox comes from the tactile pleasure of operating it.
The other pleasure comes from the quality of the images. Minox provide film in speeds ranging from 25 ASA (very fine grain film, offering pin sharp images, but needing longer exposures) to the 400 ASA speed film which is familiar to holiday-makers. The film format is 8x11mm (about the size of your little finger-nail). It is delivered in tiny cassettes, which are barely more than an inch long, and which can be loaded in daylight - an innovation in 1938. Early cassettes were metal; the modern ones are plastic. You can still use the modern cassettes in the very earliest Minoxes.
More than Just a Camera
There were a lot of wonderful accessories available. The pocket tripods were the size of pens. There were also slide projectors1.
Another option was film slitters, which could be used to split a standard 36-exposure 35mm film into three lengths, each of which provided 50 exposures. The light-sensitive film would have to be split in the dark of course, and you would then have the fun of loading these strips into the tiny cassettes entirely by touch.
To quote Minox's own 1958 catalogue: An
... adjustable copy stand makes easy work of copying letters, documents, books, etc. It folds for easy pocket carrying.
Some people find the disingenuous wording in the original catalogues charming, but others find it rather cynical. The catalogues and ephemera are collectors' items in themselves.
It is not difficult to find second-hand Minoxes. There are several specialist dealers on the Internet. In Germany, they can be found in second-hand camera shops. Second-hand Minoxes vary in price, but be wary of cheap Minoxes though. The C or the B are good models for new users to start with, although the light meters on the B are getting old now, and you may need to run a couple of films through the camera to calibrate it before settling in to use it.
Minoxes are fascinating, and satisfying cameras to own and use. They fit comfortably in a pocket, and the fact that they are way smaller, and cooler, than other modern 'compact' cameras is pleasing too.
Finally, if you own a Minox, you may find yourself looking at it sometimes, and wondering where it has been... what it has seen...
Minox Website - German and English Language versions available.
Some impressive colour photographs taken with a modern Minox ECX - even more impressive when you consider the size of the camera and the negatives.