Minox Camera, 1937–1942, by Designer Valters Caps (1905–2003)
Andy Warhol had one, the British royal family had one and it was the darling of intelligence services worldwide. The Minox camera is the smallest camera in the world and it was designed and built in the 1930s in Latvia. For its time, it was very technologically advanced and remains to this day a fine example of excellent product design.
The brainchild of Valters Caps, the Minox camera is a mere 17 x 27 x 80 mm in size and weighs 125 grams. To better understand its minute dimensions, it’s often placed next to a cigarette lighter for comparison. But the tiny invention sure packs a big punch!
It’s long, slim, made of shiny metal and looks nothing like its more common counterparts. Not only is the camera itself an iconic design item, but also its accessory set, which consists of two magnifiers, a tripod head, a loupe for negatives, an adapter for postcard format photographs, a film case, a light metre, envelopes for storing developed films, and a unique developing tray, which can even be used outside a darkroom.
The full set was branded VEF Minox Rīga and had a strong visual identity. Caps himself designed the Minox logo with a bit of help from inventor Ādolfs Irbīte (1910–1983). Even advertisements for the camera became famous for their design.
The original Minox consists of a brass chassis covered in a stainless steel shell, which can be slid open to reveal the lens and viewfinder. There’s no need to manually wind the film, the camera winds it automatically. Another feature of the Minox is its inbuilt yellow filter for cloud and landscape photography.
Caps was born in Rīga in 1905. In the 1920s, his family moved to Tallinn where Caps worked for the Valters Lembergs photography lab and got the idea to try to create his own miniature camera. He made the first prototype from wood.
Since the camera mechanism was very specific, it wasn’t possible for the camera to be produced in Estonia. Caps sought options elsewhere and finally signed an agreement with VEF (acronym for State Electrotechnical Factory) in Rīga in 1936 where over one hundred staff were involved in the production of the camera. Only optical glass and films were imported from Germany, everything else was produced on the spot.
The camera entered the market in 1938 and cost 248 lats (now, approximately 350 euros). Production ended in 1942 with Latvia under German rule, and all the factory equipment was moved to Germany. Until then VEF had built 17 000 cameras, which were sold all over the world. Each camera had its own serial number and was engraved with the sentence “Made in Latvia”, which was replaced with “Made in USSR” after the Soviet occupation in 1940.
At the start of World War II Caps himself moved to Berlin where he worked for AEG. After the war, he and business partner Rihards Jirgens founded their own company called “Minox” with the intention of continuing to produce cameras. However, eventually Caps didn’t quite see eye to eye with the investors and left the company. He spent most of the rest of his life in Switzerland working as an independent constructor.
Minox cameras have made several appearances on TV and in films. In 1969, the Minox featured in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, the sixth film in the James Bond series. Unsurprisingly, James Bond himself, played by George Lazenby, used the camera for some candid photography.
Minox cameras are now a collectors’ favourite and the ones engraved with “Made in USSR” are particularly sought after. In Rīga, you can find examples on show at the Latvian Museum of Photography and the VEF History Museum.
Pēteris Korsaks on camera "Minox" in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Manual for "Minox" camera by VEF (Valsts elektrotehniskā fabrika (State Electrotechnical Factory)). (1939). Rīga. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Advertising publications "Jaunais ceļš. Minox ērtākā un mazākā foto kamera" (The New Way. The Smallest and Easy to Use Camera Minox). (1939). Rīga: S.n. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Pēteris Korsaks on camera "Minox" in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Fotoaparāti „VEF Minox ” – apvērsums fotorūpniecībā: pasaulē pirmais miniatūrais fotoaparāts. (2012). No: 100 Latvijas vēstures relikvijas (170.-171.lpp.). Rīga: Lauku Avīze.
Minox Subminiature Camera 1936: Walter Zapp 1905-2003: [miniatūrā fotoaparāta Minox dizains, tā attīstība]. No: Elizabeth Wilhide (ed.). Design: the whole story (186.-187. lpp.). London: Thames & Hudson.
Moses, Morris, Wade, John. (1998). Spycamera – the Minox story. 2nd ed. Small Dole: Hove Collectors Books.
Pritchard, Michael. (2015). The Minox: [Valsts Elektrofabrikā ražotais mini foto aparāts, tā tehniskie parametri]. No: Michael Pritchard. A history of photography in 50 cameras (116.-119. lpp.). Buffalo: Firefly Books.
Šuste, Marta. (2016). Fotokamera VEF-Minox. No: Eduards Kļaviņš (sast.). Latvijas mākslas vēsture. 5. sēj.: 1915-1940 (633. lpp.). Rīga: Latvijas Mākslas akadēmijas Mākslas vēstures institūts; Mākslas vēstures pētījumu atbalsta fonds.
VEF Muzejs [u.c.]. (2001). Mazākais fotoaparāts pasaulē: tehnikas vēstures rakstu krāj. par Valteru Capu un fotoaparātu VEF Minox. Rīga.
Walter Zapp, 1905-2003: investor. (2006). No: A Hundred Great Latvians (126.-127. lpp.). [Rīga: Nacionālais apg.].
Widmer, Kurt. (2006). Die Minox – Geniestreich und Schicksal [dokumentālā filma]. [Schweiz]: NZZ Format; Neue Züricher Zeitung. 1 DVD (52 min).
Young, D. Scott. (2000). Minox: Marvel in miniature. Bloomington: AuthorHouse.