The Soviet camera-making industry went into overdrive after World War II, buoyed with war spoils from some of Germany’s most prominent camera producers. But it didn’t quite appear from nowhere.
The Soviet camera industry started not long after the Russian Revolution itself, when Russia’s photographic companies were nationalised under the orders of Soviet leader Lenin in 1919. The Soviet Union’s early photographic industry included GOI (Gosudarstvennyi Opticheskii Institute or State Optical Institute) and VOOMP, a Leningrad-based union of camera producers which began in 1930 and would – many years later – become LOMO.
In stark contrast to the enormous production of the 1950s and 60s, however, this emerging industry was short on experience and technical knowledge. Promising early designs – including a 35mm camera called the Bostelman, invented not long after the release of the first Leica camera, were left unrealised. A Soviet camera industry would emerge – fitfully, eventually – in the early 1930s.
Soviet designers concentrated on the kinds of cameras being made westwards, especially in the ever-advancing German camera industry. VOOMP – essentially a camera workshop spun out of GOI’s lens institute – made workable prototype of both the Leica I and the Leica II which are both called “Pioneer”.
In Moscow, meanwhile, an emerging producer called Foto Trud produced plate cameras, similar to the ones made in Germany by the likes of Voigtlander. These cameras were, like VOOMP’s Leica-likes, made for a professional clientele. What Soviet designers weren’t making was a camera for the curious youngster, someone who was interested in experimenting with photography. The Soviet Union was supposed to be making products for the welfare of the average citizen, after all…
In the decades after World War II, this beginner’s camera market would be amply looked after by the GOMZ (LOMO) Smena range, a family of cameras produced up to – and beyond – the fall of the Soviet Union.
In the 1930s, however, this class of beginners’ camera – especially for 35mm – was in its infancy. A designer called D Bunimovich, working for the Moscow toy collective “Cooperigrushka” in Moscow set to work on a camera designed for teenagers learning the basics of photography.
The Iura resembled a simplified Leica rangefinder, though it lacked pretty much all the Leica’s refinements apart from a lens. The Iura had Barnack-style loading via a removable bottom plate and a fixed 75mm lens which had a fixed aperture of f/12.5. The camera’s shutter was similar to that found of box cameras like the Kodak Brownie –There was no viewfinder inside the camera – instead the photographer had to peer through an external metal frame which offered an approximate view.
Much like the simplest box cameras of the early 20th Century, the Iura was built to a budget – there were few metal parts, with most of the camera’s body being made from wood and paper.
The camera is little-known outside the Russian speaking world, but was produced in reasonable enough numbers for it to figure in some Soviet photographic books of the period.
Ukrainian photo historian Ivan Zotikov passed on to Kosmo Foto several images from contemporary books on the Iura, aswell as notes from another collector familiar with the camera (but who did not wish to be named.)
He notes: “To load the camera, a film length of 160cm was used, which made it possible to take 36 pictures without reloading.
“The camera lens (plano-convex lens with a focal length of 75mm) is stopped down to 1:12 and set to constant focus. This camera worked almost sharply even from a distance of 2m (6.6ft). The camera is equipped with a frame viewfinder, a film advance indicator and a Box-Tengor shutter operating with shutter speed and instantly at a speed of 1/25 sec. The camera has a tripod socket and can be mounted on a tripod.”
“Despite the simplicity of the design and the lens, the camera produces good pictures that can withstand magnification up to 13х18 cm,” wrote the authors of the book ‘The Pocket Guide to Photography’, published in Leningrad in 1936.
The Iura was only produced for two years between 1935 and 1937, and was supplanted by a similar camera made of metal called the Fedetta, also designed by Bunimovich and built at Moscow’s Gorbannov plant.
Being made of paper and wood, Iuras dd not weather the passing decades as well as other cameras of the same age; few of the Soviet cameras collectors Kosmo Foto has talked to over the past two decades have one in their collection.
In September 2023, the Wetzlar Camera Auctions announced their latest sale, which included a Iura, in very good condition for its age. Such is the Iura’s rarity – it is, after all, a wood-and-paper camera that was supposed to be handled by teenagers – the camera came with a starting price of €15,000 and an estimate of €30,000.
Not a bad return on a camera designed to be little more than a toy.
- Many thanks to Ivan Zotikov for material used for this article.