Monday, April 16, 2007

Argus C3 - "The Brick"

A couple of weeks ago I posted some "toy digital camera" photos and noted that on the same day I had been playing with the "toys" I had also been trying out a vintage 1950s Argus C-3, during its heyday one of the most popular cameras in the U.S. While the Germans and Japanese were manufacturing some beautiful cameras during the 50s - works of engineering art with beautiful chrome, precision mechanics and top-notch lenses, American camera manufacturers were responding to a postwar surge in the number of people buying cameras. And realize that the average American was not going to go out and spend a small fortune on a Leica or Zeiss camera. Indeed, most Americans didn't even have access to these brands. They wanted access to inexpensive, easy-to-use cameras that would give them acceptable photos of the family and friends, enjoying themselves amidst the middle class prosperity of the period. Particularly widespread were the cheaply made, largely plastic, twin lens reflex and box cameras that typically shot 120 or the now obsolete 127 or 620 formats.

Arguably the biggest seller in the 20 years after World War II was the Argus C-3, produced with minor variations from 1939 until 1966. Talk about a production run! Some photography historians even suggest that the C-3 sold Americans on the 35mm format. Yet one would think that, in an era in which product design garnered inspiration from the "streamlining" craze of the 1930s to the Harley Earl-inspired bulbous fenders and rounded curves of postwar American autos, a camera manufactured for the masses would have incorporated something of that design ethos. Yet the C-3 is anything but an ergonomic masterpiece. Its nickname is "the Brick" and its appearance certainly gives that impression. It's surprisingly heavy for a largely Bakelite contraption, and obviously it doesn't fit neatly into the contours of one's hand. Its winding and cocking components are awkward. In some versions the aperature/speed settings are cryptic. And its interchangeable lens system is cumbersome.

But there's something oddly appealing about it. It's fun to use . . . and for me is doubly attractive because it represents the absolute antithesis of the poorly-made, throwaway digital cameras which now flood the market. The C-3's rangefinder is pretty accurate and the lenses produce surprisingly sharp images with nice contrast. Sure, it's not a Leica M3 or Contax IIa, contemporary rangefinders. But in a camera sold to the masses at department stores, the Argus C-3 belongs in the pantheon of mass-produced, utilitarian, well-made consumer products of the postwar economic boom. They're so popular that that there are numerous webpages devoted to the C-3 and Argus cameras in general. Naturally I had to have one . . . and so many have survived - in working condition - that they're still inexpensive. Mine is a "Matchmatic" variety, pictured above, which had an uncoupled selenium light meter and two-tone leatherette. (This same model was used by the school photographer in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.)

So how did my experiment with the C-3 turn out. The photo at the head of this entry and here at the end are among the best. I wasn't shooting as an artistic endeavor; this was an attempt to reveal the sharpness of the C-3's lens and the extent to which it produced a nicely contrasted image. I think the results were excellent for a 50-year old camera. (The first image is from Washington Square Park, detail from a statue's pedestal. I liked the contrast revealed on a sunny day. The second image was taken at a park on Horatio Street in the West Village after our last bit of snow. I like the detail from the wood on the park bench. Not bad on such a closely focused image. On both images I think the lens was stopped down to f16. Film was Kodak 400CV, the black and white film which processes in c-41 chemicals. It would be interesting to see how this camera performs with the much slower ASA 25 or 50 film which were the standard film speeds during the C-3's heyday.)

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

You should have a gallery to show off your pictures to the world.