Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The Argus C-3 - The Infamous Brick

After over 15 years of blogging with Random Camera Blog, it's hard to believe that I, a former Argus collector/shooter, have not said much about the Argus Brick.  It's more than a chunk of Bakelite and Aluminum. It represents small-town industry and innovation.  It also represents the birth and decline of American-made products in the post-WWII era.  It represents the birth of 35mm color slides and amateur slide shows, and the post-war photography boom in America.  The Argus C-3 was never a beauty pageant winner, and its rugged homeliness is a throwback to when utility was favored over aesthetics, and the science of ergonomics had yet to be invented.

The Origins of the Argus C series

While Ann Arbor is known as the home of the University of Michigan, I imagine most people have no idea of the industry that was there nearly a century ago.  In 1931, the International Radio Corporation (IRC) was formed by a bunch of businessmen to build small radios for the home. Since this was in the Great Depression, it seems like it was a risky venture, but in fact, it was quite successful.  Summer months were apparently a less busy time for the company, and Charles A. Vershoor, the company president, decided that they could produce a small 35mm camera with the facilities already present at the IRC in Ann Arbor.  He apparently got this idea after seeing a Leica Model A while abroad in 1934.  The result was the Argus A, a fairly simple Bakelite-bodied 35mm camera with a rim-set shutter and plain viewfinder that appeared in 1936 - with nothing in common with the Leica except that it took 35 mm film.  The resulting sales were so successful that IRC sold its radio patents to RCA, and thus the company became the International Research Corporation, later changing to Argus, Inc. in the 1940s.

While the Argus A series of cameras were successful, they lacked rangefinder focusing, and much like the Contax rangefinder camera, the design for "the brick" has a geared focus wheel on the front of the camera that is linked to the rangefinder.  However, the first model, the Argus C (1938-39), did not have the rangefinder linked to the lens focus, and one therefore had to read the distance from the uncoupled rangefinder and then move the focus distance on the lens barrel. The Argus C-2 also appeared in 1938, and has the rangefinder wheel coupled to the lens.  There was no flash linkage on these first two models, which was addressed by the C-3, appearing in 1939, with production continuing until 1966.  That was almost a 30-year reign for a camera, which of course, is unheard of today.  Because of the C, C-2, and C-3 models having some overlap, and the lengthy production run, there are many variations in the C-3, some retrofitted C-2s, and because Argus was often cash short, there can be oddities that pop up that vex collectors. Some of those may have been modification at the factory, or by users.

Argus tried to continue with some basic form of the C-3 in the Argus C-33 (1959-61), Autronic 35 (1960-62), and Autronic II (1962-65).  None of these cameras were a big success. With the availability of much better cameras from Japan and Germany, and a more discerning and prosperous market, Argus sales steeply declined.  Argus barely clung to life into the late 1970s through a series of mergers and acquisitions and it ended its run as a company in 1985.  No cameras have been made in Ann Arbor since the early 1960s, and it's safe to say that the C-3 was the most popular 35 mm camera produced in the USA, with millions produced. 

Argus made many more cameras than the beloved Brick, and the best compendium on the history of Argus and its cameras is the book Argomania (2005) by Henry J. Gambino (ISBN 0-9770507-0-X).  Unfortunately, it's out of print, but you may find a copy for sale online somewhere.  My favorite Argus camera is the C-4, which has a proper 35 mm rangefinder appearance, with a metal body and ergonomics that are enjoyable after using a C-3 for any length of time.

A must-have, if you are into Argus!

Argus C-3 Versions

The first version (1939-1940) of the Argus C-3 came with 10 shutter speeds plus Bulb. The second variant (1940-42) has seven shutter speeds plus B, and was the last version before WWII.  The third variant (1946) was identical to the second, but has a coated lens, standard f-stop designations, and a black shutter cocking lever.

The sixth variant (1955-56) has the "Color-Matic" settings such that the shutter speed dial, aperture dial and rangefinder dial are color-coded to match the "Color-Matic" settings.  The shutter was simplified to five speeds (1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/300), which remained for the run of the camera.  Further variations are pretty much cosmetic.  The "Harry Potter camera" -- an Argus C-3 Matchmatic (1958-66), has a two-tone leatherette and an EVS system that was supposed to simplify operation.  It also came with an LC-3 Selenium exposure meter.

The C-3 Standard was manufactured from 1958-1966, and it looks a bit more dressed up than the previous versions.  That's probably the most common Argus C-3 that people will run into these days.  The lens is recessed from the front just a bit, and the dials and button look more polished.  However, it's a C-3, and is not functionally different from the first C-3 in 1939.

My only remaining C-3s - both are users

My history with the Argus C-3

I picked up my first Argus, an Argus 75 box camera in the summer of 2000 at a thrift shop in Cheboygan, MI.  I didn't know squat about Argus cameras at the time, and I later picked up an Argus A and then a C-3 in 2001.  They were simply something interesting to try out, but then I started learning more about Argus, and that the cameras were made in Ann Arbor.  Once I found the Argus Museum at the site of the original factory, I was hooked into learning more about these cameras and started collecting them. So did my daughter Marjorie, and between the two us us there were probably close to 50 Argus cameras in the house at one time.  At that time, in the early 2000s, Argus cameras were dirt cheap.  After all, with digital becoming a big thing, those old Argus cameras could not have been worth anything!  So, we managed to acquire some rare models and pretty much all the variants in the C series. All of my rare Argus cameras were sold quite a while ago, and except for a few models, I gave the remaining Argus cameras to the Argus Museum before I moved to North Carolina  in 2019.
A few of the Argus C series that went to the Argus Museum

I kept two C-3s.  One is a third variant, and the other is a sixth variant.  Both work very well, and one has a 35 mm Argus Sandmar wide-angle lens instead of the standard 50mm f/3.5 Argus Cintar.

What's that, a 35 mm lens?  Yes, the Argus C-3 is capable of using other lenses made for it.  It's not a quick process, but Argus sold the 35 mm Sandmar lens and a 100 mm f/4.5 Tele-Sanmar lens.  Soligor and Fuji also made lenses for the C-3.

One of the wonderful things about Argus cameras is that aside from being popular in the USA, there were a number of companies that made accessories for them. Collecting such items is quite a feat by itself: close-up filters, series filter holders, flash guns, close-up kits, underwater housings, etc. can be found, though I suspect that what used to be fairly common has now become hard to find as a lot of such accessories were probably tossed in the trash.

Using an Argus C-3 

While I only occasionally use an Argus of any kind these days, I know that if I pick up a C-3, I can get good images from it. If the camera is in good working order, the lens clear, and the rangefinder accurate, you should be able to take very good photographs. In fact, I challenge you to find a better-US-made 35mm camera from that era that still works as well as when new. It's not going to be in the same ballpark as German-made cameras such as the Kodak Retina II, but it was far more affordable at the time.  An Argus C-3 can be ideal for long-exposures, and I have used one to take urban night shots.

Mark Dalzell, holding the Giant Argus C-3 at the Argus
Museum in Ann Arbor. There are several giant display
versions of Argus cameras at the museum.

Basic Features

  • coupled rangefinder focusing of lens
  • separate rangefinder and composing viewfinders (much like a Barnack Leica) 
  • manually selectable shutter speeds on a front L dial
  • manually selectable aperture on front of lens
  • I(instant) and B (bulb) select for exposure at base of shutter button
  • front-mounted shutter cocking lever - can easily do multiple exposures
  • manual reset of frame counter on top-mounted counter
  • film wind knob on top L, film rewind knob on bottom R
  • Tripod socket on bottom L
  • Flash sockets for bulb-type flashgun on L side
  • Shutter speeds from 1/10- 1/300 sec + B

- what, you want more? fuggetaboutit!

The first thing is to familiarize yourself with the controls of the C-3.  I think the number one thing that stumps people is opening the back.  Press down on the raised chrome spot on the body latch that's on the L side of the camera. The back can now be pulled open if you have pressed hard enough.  Oh look, the film loads on the right side and the take-up spool is on the left, the reverse of most 35 mm cameras.
Argus C-3 third variant, 1946-48

The Weston numbers were replaced by ASA numbers in 1948

push that chrome bump in to open the back

be sure to move the film catch to the L when you begin to advance
 the film
yes, it loads from right to left

Go to the Argus Collector's Group website for more information on the Argus cameras, manuals, and sample images.  I am reproducing two of their images that show the parts and layout of a typical Argus C-3.
C-3 Features Front, courtesy of the Argus Collector's Group

C-3 Features Top, courtesy of the Argus Collector's Group

While writing this article, I felt that I should go back through my rolls of film shot in the C-3 and re-scan them.  My shots date primarily form 2001-2003, before the age of Flickr and a lot of online sharing, so it's been good to see them again. If anything, there were more errors in my film processing than in the operation of the camera. I have to say, I thought a share of the negatives were pretty good, and if you are looking for a cheap 35 mm camera with full manual control, the C-3 should be considered.

A few things I wish Argus had done differently:

  • Strap lugs.  Argus isn't alone in this, but it would have been nice to have strap lugs on the camera body, and not to have to use the leather case with a strap.  I'm not a fan of ever-ready cases. 
  • A faster lens. A maximum aperture of  f/3.5 isn't great, and f/2.8 would have been nice.  However, based upon the lens design, it would certainly have made the camera more expensive, and bulkier than it already is.
  • A better system of attaching the back!

While its easy to talk about the shortcomings of the Argus C-3 in the year 2020, one should think about just what was available to the amateur photographer in the USA in 1942.   First of all, large format and medium format was the realm of professional photographers.  The cameras that used 127 film were mostly aimed at the occasional photographer, and box cameras that used 620/120/127  in the USA were aimed at the beginners and household photographers.  The “miniature” format of 135 film was really just getting popular, but it offered more control and less to carry around.  The cameras, however, were relatively expensive.  If one wanted to pursue 35 mm, the Argus C-3 was probably the most quality at an affordable price.  The Argus A series (starting in 1936) certainly made 35 mm affordable, but it was the C-3 that gave professional results.  Once war started in Europe, the German-made cameras became much more difficult to acquire, and the Argus was the obvious choice in the USA.   It wasn't until after the war ended, that the post-war 35 mm photography boom really got going, and while there were many American camera manufacturers, none of them sold  cameras as dependable as the Argus C-3.  Kodak was the exception, and its German-made Retina series cameras were a far better, more compact, and also more expensive option.  The Kodak Pony, originally made for 828 film, became a 35 mm camera in 1950, but it lacked rangefinder focusing.  The Kodak 35 Rangefinder (1940-42, 1946-51)- perhaps the most ungainly-looking camera ever, lacked the ruggedness and simplicity of the Argus C-3.  The earliest models lacked flash synchronization, and the camera was always more expensive than the C-3.

In today's dollars the C-3 would be about $675!

Speaking of WWII, the American photographer, Tony Vaccaro, served as an Army Infantryman, and carried his Argus C-3 throughout his service.  His photographs were taken as a soldier, and it wasn't until 50 years after the war ended, that he exhibited them.   There is no doubt that the rugged and easily repaired C-3 served him well, and his images show the stark reality of the war from D-Day until Germany surrendered.    There is an excellent HBO documentary (2016) -  Under fire. The untold story of PFC Tony Vaccaro. It's available online now.

You can still use a C-3 today.  They are great for making multiple exposures as you can cock and fire the shutter without advancing the film.  As I said above, if the camera is in good mechanical and optical condition, it will do as well as the person using that is using it.  There is something about using a 60-80-year old 35 mm camera in 2020.  While it's easy to poke a bit of fun at The Brick, it paved the way for a generation of photographers.

Some sample images from my C-3 cameras over the years

2008 Argus Day Meetup


Unknown said...

Interesting read, even for somebody like me who has never owned an Argus.

George Bulthuis said...

I'm always taken in by an article about the Argus Camera Company.
When my dad was in Med school at the U of M, he and mom were married in June 1940. She joined him in student housing and went to work at the Argus Camera Company. Growing up, an Argus C3 was always there for any event that needed to be recorded (along with an 8mm Bell & Howell). Dad put more rolls of Kodachrome through that camers than I can count. When I got my hands on it in the mid 60's, that camera needed to learn a new trick - B&W Tri-X (more rolls than I can count!).

Kevin Thomas said...

The C-3 is a great intro to basic film photography - no bells and whistles 😁 I enjoy breaking out either my 1954 or my 1958 c-3’s from time to time. I have one from the fall of 1945 that works fine, but the lack of coating makes a difference.

Regarding straps, I have a number of older cameras lacking strap lugs. I found a little device that screws into the tripod mount that I can hook a strap to, works a treat.

MyVintageCameras said...

Thinking about using my Argus Brick for the Frugal Film Project. The next phase involved color film (Ektar) any opinions? Advice?

Mark Edward Soper said...

By using zone focusing, the Argus C-3 was a perfect point and shoot camera for high- school basketball photography. F5.6, 15 feet focus, 1/100 shutter speed on Tri-X.