|The American secret services ordered them by the dozen and ‚Äútraitors to Mother Russia‚ÄĚ were executed for possessing them|
Born in Riga in 1905 to an English-educated German father, Walter Zapp spent his childhood years in the Russian Urals, where his family had been exiled by the Tsarist authorities. After the Russian revolution his family were reunited in a now-independent Latvia and Walter started work as an apprentice art photographer in Tallin, Estonia. Dogged by illness and frequently changing jobs, he wound up at a photographic dealer where, in 1925, he was so impressed by the first shipments of the Leica 35mm miniature camera that he started to work on ideas of his own.
In the early 1930s Zapp, supported by industrialist Richard Jurgens, began to develop his sub-miniature camera. It is worth remembering that the Leica was still regarded by most photographers as a bit of a toy and Jurgens was initially reluctant to pour money into a camera originally designed to produce a negative 6.5x9mm – 1/16 the size of a Leica frame!
Zapp pressed on, and by early 1935 had produced detailed drawings from which to build the first prototype.
In 1936 a demonstration of the working prototype, complete with on-the-spot photographs, resulted in the Riga-based Valsts Electrotechniske Fabrika (VEF) enthusiastically agreeing to build the newly named Minox. It took another two years of development to get the camera into production: the interlocking case with its sliding action to cock the shutter and wind the film required a level of precision that stretched the technology of the day.
The Minox eventually reached the marketplace – and then the Russians reached Riga! With the fortunes of war for Latvia swinging between Russian and German occupation, production of the Minox continued but Zapp moved to Berlin and the AEG Research Institute.
Post-war, Zapp and Jurgens, with the help of tobacco magnate Ludwig Rinn, re-started production of the Minox in Wetzlar, Germany – home, ironically, of the Leica. Constant development saw the Minox grow ever more sophisticated, only marginally larger, and at its peak sell in hundreds of thousands.
A range of accessories made the Minox an ideal camera for photographing small objects. The camera focused down to eight inches and a telescopic four-legged copy stand allowed you to slip the odd memo underneath for a quick shot. There was even a portable ‘darkroom’ available in the form of film developing tanks and a tiny enlarger. The vice-president of Minox in the USA used to enjoy demonstrating that it was possible to go from snap to print in 12 minutes – not quite Polaroid speed but impressive nevertheless.
Walter Zapp always denied that his camera was conceived with espionage in mind but is also on record as saying that the first camera sold was to a French diplomat who found it ‘useful for office purposes’ – though whether that meant for taking pictures of his secretary or for copying documents isn’t clear.