The RILEX: a little story about a tiny American camera
I discovered the aluminum Rilex Press Camera in one of my usual quests for vintage photographic equipment which I purchase not to collect and keep on a shelf, but to put back to use, as I find post-modern technology from a bygone era very conducive to create new visual work.
The minute I saw it, I immediately fell in love with this tiny camera. The care, precision and obvious manual skill in its craftsmanship is incredible, especially today, when ninety percent of everything is mass-produced, often by machines. The leather bellows are still supple and intact after seventy years. It is extremely lightweight: holding it in my hands it felt as if it had been slowly “carved”, with love, from a shiny block of aluminum.
Its minimalist simplicity and elegant design is inspiring.
So I bought it, and for a very reasonable price, it came with a Graphex 135mm lens in good condition, but I soon decided to replace that with a 90mm, as the short bellows draw of the camera surely lent itself to a wider angle of view.
The Rilex uses 2 1/4″ x 3 1/4″ film sheets, loaded in miniature film holders, the exact replica of a 4×5 or a larger holder, only much smaller. This size film sheet film is still being manufactured today, but only by special order, so I often cut from larger sheets (usually 8×10) several 2 1/4″ x 3 1/4″ strips to use in my Rilex.
This tiny beauty has a focusing ground glass on a revolving back, allowing switching from vertical to horizontal photos in a pinch. It provides a wire “sport viewfinder”, which helps, somewhat, to frame your image if you are shooting hand-held.
Not having seen another single Rilex in my entire life, I was curious about its history, so I searched the web extensively seeking information, but what I was able to find wasn’t much at all: a few mentions in vintage camera forums and a handful of fragmentary data, mostly on a short web article (now gone offline) by a collector, Mr. Walter A. Johnson, which I’ll summarize here.
The Rilex Press Camera was apparently manufactured in Santa Monica, California, in the 1940’s. The man who invented it was called Curtis Riley. It is told that one of Mr. Riley’s friends was a member of the press and was often complaining about the heavy weight of the cameras he had to lug around.
So, Mr. Riley, who was, or had been, an engineer for Lockheed, decided to invent a lightweight aluminum camera and eventually founded The Riley Research Company, which was owned and operated by him and his wife, Gay Riley.
Oral tradition has it that Mr. Riley made the mechanical part of the camera, and his wife Gay folded the leather bellows (with unsurpassed skill, judging from the specimen I own).
Mrs. Riley was quoted to have said, years later, that she could “fold those damn bellows in her sleep”.
However, Curtis Riley mostly liked to invent things for the pleasure of it: he never patented his idea and it appears that only 800 units of this camera were produced and sold before the company folded and disappeared into oblivion.
I enjoy using my Rilex camera very much. Its elegant simplicity is refreshing and, at first, even a bit challenging. The concept of “less is more” needs to be applied in full here: not a simple thing, as spoiled as we are in the era of multi-purpose, multi-tasking, “smart” devices.
The Rilex Press Camera is a wonderful example of American inventiveness and ingenuity.
It is a testament to the pleasure of invention for invention sake, for the fun of it, to solve a friend’s problem: a concept that obviously was still possible to entertain in 1940’s America and that I can only wish was still widely entertained and practiced today.
An image taken with the Rilex camera using an f2.5 projector lens.
X-Ray film (100 Asa), developed in coffee