'She said the man in the gabardine coat was a spy,
I said: "be careful, his bow tie is really a camera"...'
If the man that Paul Simon sang about in 'America' really was 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.
A Minox III was found - and then mysteriously not found - among the possessions of Lee Harvey Oswald. Sean Connery uses a Minox in You Only Live Twice and Minoxes also feature in Grosse Pointe Blank and Honeymoon in Vegas. The Duke of Edinburgh has a gold Minox.
These 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, and that he used it to photograph sensitive National Security Agency codes. Incredibly - for a camera whose history goes back to the 1930s - their inventor Walter Zapp is still alive today in his 90s. He lives in Switzerland.
Mars Bars are bigger than Minoxes; Leathermans 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 3 models in current production - side by side in a packet of cigarettes.
Like many things created in the 1930s, the design is surprisingly modern. Quite often when people first see a 40 year old Minox, they assume from the aluminium case and smooth mechanism that it is the latest miniaturised Japanese fashion item. But 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 from 1938 to 1943. Manufacturing was disrupted by the 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 8 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 different versions of three cameras in their current sub-miniature range
- The LX200 is the ultimate Minox available today. Sleek, black, handmade, very sexy, very very expensive;
- The TLX and CLX are the "regular" versions of the LX. Still sleek and sexy, and just very expensive.
- The EC is the smallest production camera in the world is fully electronic but plastic
- The MX which is shiny and curvy, still a Minox, but clearly a toy.
As well as sub-miniatures, Minox 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 from 25 ASA (very fine grain film, offering pin sharp images, but needing longer exposures) to the 400 ASA film which is familiar to holiday-makers. The film format is 8mm x 11mm (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. The pocket tripods are the size of pens. There were slide projectors.1
There were also film slitters, which could be used to split a standard 36-exposure 35mm film into 3 lengths each of which provided 50 exposures. You would have to do this in the dark of course; and you would then have the fun of loading these strips into the cassettes entirely by touch.
And to quote Minox's own 1958 catalogue there was: 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; 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 from about $150 to $1200. Be wary of cheap Minoxes though, most good ones start at about $400. The C or the B are good models for new users to start with, but 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 of course the fact that they are way cooler - and smaller - than the Canon Ixus and other modern pocket cameras is pleasing too.
And if you own a Minox, you may find yourself looking at it sometimes, and wondering where it has been, what it has seen...
K-chng! 'The man he is talking to here is your primary target'
You've seen the movies.