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"Dad Owned an Argus C-3"
Today it's easy to make fun of those old funny looking Argus C-3's. I mean, after, OUR cameras are just so smart and so cool compared to those old fashioned funny looking Argi.
But, I mean, wait a minute, is the true value of cameras their mechanics, or the pictures they take, the memories they keep, the family events of a lifetime they protect?....
Argus Cameras thoroughly documented 1940's and 50's America due to their sheer overwhelming numbers. Their legacy is priceless memories of family and friends long gone by.
Yes, to the doubters among you, the Argus is a very important camera. This email letter from John Lind explains it better than I can.
"Well entertained" would be the best way to describe how I felt after reading your write-up on the "Argi" you have collected.
Dad owned an Argus C3 Bakelite "brick." Before that he used a folding camera (unknown make or model, but I believe a Kodak). It used 620 B/W negative film and one made contact prints from the negatives. It is undoubtedly what he cut his photography teeth on. After my twin brother and I were born, dad bought one of the marvels of 35mm photography in 1953, the famous and ubiquitous Argus C3 Bakelite "brick." We lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, not all that far from where it was made. It's what most parents have done during this century: buy a new camera as soon as the first ankle-biter is hatched to document for all posterity the antics of their proud progeny. He also bought the bowl reflector flash attachment that plugged into the side, used the large M25 flash bulbs powered by a pair of "D" cells in its Bakelite tube and a medium sized bag to haul it all around in.
Why an Argus C3? Knowing who dad was and a little about the company that made the Argus explains a lot. He was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He went to college at the U of I in Champaign and got a BSEE there. I read one of the projects he did while a U of I student . . . the complete design of a single-conversion superheterodyne AM receiver. Truly into radio communications he also was an amateur radio operator getting his license just after the government put amateurs back on the air following WWII. He was also frugal and quite practical having lived during the Great Depression and put himself through college after his father died in 1939. Sum this up and compare it to the history of Argus with its low cost camera marketing strategies: IRC, a mid-western company that made radios also made the inexpensive Argus C3, which can be described as the Model A of the 35mm format. It had all the essentials for the 35mm format one needed; nothing more, nothing less. The company must have struck a chord with him somehow just as it did with millions of others.
B/W images can be powerful, especially for serious artwork, landscape, architecture and portraiture. B/W didn't grab attention to the pedestrian vacation, holiday and family photography that color does. This was especially true during the late 1940's and 1950's; most motion pictures, all of television, and newspapers (except the Sunday front page) were B/W until the 1960's. Early consumer color negative films were not very good. They did not render color well, nor did negatives and prints archive well. Not compared to what is on the market today, and certainly not compared to the alternative at the time: Kodachrome slides; slow ASA 25 and 64 stuff; complex K-14 developing process using massive machines. Compared to most images people saw at the time Kodachrome was spectacular.
Good Kodachrome slides projected on a large screen are beautiful. My guess
is more 35mm color slides have been taken with slow Kodachrome films than most others added together. Today it remains one of the best films ever devised in spite of the complex processing required: extremely fine grain, superbly accurate color rendition, and it archives easily for over 100 years if stored in a decent environment. It is why Kodak still makes Kodachrome. It's unique properties haven't been duplicated with the E-6 slide films, however good they may also be.
What did dad use in his C3? Nearly all of it was Kodachrome. He shot a
few rolls of Ektachrome during the late 1960's and early 1970's, but not much. Kodachrome is not very forgiving stuff, slightly less than E-6 chromes and especially so compared to negative films. A half-stop off on exposure and you can lose detail in highlights and shadows. If it's purely for projection, one must compose and expose correctly when taking the photograph. No exposure correction, color balance correction, dodging or burning is possible, and it cannot be cropped and enlarged. Provided your projector and screen are decent, what you shot is what you got. Dad also bought an Argus 300 Automatic projector and a 40" "Radiant" glass-bead screen made by Champion. The projector had a 4" f/3.5 lens and used the equally ubiquitous Airequipt slide magazines. The magazines held 36 slides, each one in its own thin aluminum frame that slid in and out of slotted grooves in the aluminum magazine. 35mm film came in two basic lengths; 20 or 36 exposure. A roll of 36 exposure Kodachrome filled one Airequipt magazine. The manual mechanism used for the magazines could be removed and a rotating frame attached for viewing individual slides not loaded into a magazine (including older glass mounted ones that were too thick for the magazine frames).
Was dad a "serious" amateur photographer? I think not if one considers
when he used a camera and what he photographed: family, vacations and holidays. He did understand photography, both the art and science, and he understood it very well. It's how he was able to shoot Kodachrome using a C3. Dad also had a light meter. It was a wonderful GE model with beautiful brushed chrome concentric dials that could handle any film speed with huge ranges of shutter speeds and apertures. My brother still has it. Dad rarely used it. He didn't need to. His eyes must have been calibrated to the Kodak Photoguide exposure dial. He would look at his subject and venue, then set the aperture and shutter speed. Years later I knew he was using the f/16 rule and adjusting by stops using Kentucky windage. Dad did it very quickly and accurately. The proof is the large number of perfectly exposed candid and action photographs he took outdoors.
Indoor photography required the flash attachment, a monstrous Bakelite tube
that looked like a flashlight with a large sideways bowl reflector on the end. It used "D" cells and equally monstrous Sylvania 25B bayonet bulbs with a blue plastic coating (the blue coating corrected the lighting for daylight color film). They looked like 25 Watt appliance bulbs stuffed with coarse steel wool. The box came with burn and explosion warnings plus one additional admonition not to carry them around loose in your pockets. Static electricity could set them off with untold consequences if huge flash bulbs went off in your pants pocket (let your imagination fill in the rest). It was one of the few warnings he never heeded, but he never had one go off from static electricity either.
I remember being the subject of indoor photographs vividly: the muffled
popping sound of the flash going off followed by the crackling sound of the blue plastic coating on the bulb melting. Ejecting one immediately into your hand guaranteed a second degree burn. You didn't use a trash can either; it would start the trash smoldering if it found discarded tissue or newspaper. A large unused ash tray was the preferred receptacle. Nothing was automated about photography using flash bulbs. It required using guide numbers to set the aperture. The bulb type, reflector size and shutter speed determined this number. Divide the number by distance to the subject for the proper f-stop. 25B bulbs in a 4-5" reflector with Kodachrome 64 at 1/50th of a second have a guide number of about 130-140 (100 ASA: 170-180). The typical dedicated bolt-on strobe for an SLR has a guide number of 50 at ASA 64; 66 at ASA 100. Integral flash units are much wimpier still. A 25B in a 4-5" reflector could easily illuminate an entire back yard, which dad did on several occasions. It also meant you could use ASA 25 Kodachrome to nearly 25 feet with a C3 if you were shooting indoors.
How did one prevent red-eye? It was simple. First, the flash attachment and large bowl separated the flash from the lens by a sufficient distance to greatly reduce the risk. Second, dad always took two flash photographs if it was a posed shot facing the camera. While you were still seeing colored spots, he wound the film, reloaded the flash and took a second. Pupils shrank to pinholes from the first and had not started to open up yet. With 25B's, even on the other side of the living room, your eyes didn't recover for quite some time. Tim Allen would be proud of anyone still using 25B bulbs in a bowl reflector!
As young as I can remember (about age 2), dad photographed the family with his C3. We never went on a trip anywhere without it. For me it's an icon one associates with one's parents after they're gone. Whenever I see one it brings back treasured memories of him using his Bakelite "brick" and reminds me of his photographic prowess. After using his C3 for 25 years, dad finally broke down and bought a Canon AE-1 in the mid-1970's. By that time I had left home and was nearly finished with college. I have the test roll of slides he shot with the Canon to make certain it worked as well as his C3. The slide mounts are marked with apertures, shutter speeds and the ones taken using a flash have the focus distance as well. He operated it in manual mode most of the time.
Some day I hope to take photographs as good as his are. I use Kodachrome 64 and Ektachrome 100 in an OM-10, OM-4, Rollei 35S, and will be trying some Agfa Scala in an old Zeiss Ikon Contax IIIa CD soon. All of them are more advanced, more flexible and technologically better than his lowly C3. When I saw your write-up on an Argus C4 a while ago, it brought back treasured memories. After contemplating getting a C4 (its metal body is hardier than the C3's Bakelite) I decided I was not good enough for one yet. I still need built-in coupled meters, faster shutter speeds, faster lenses, and automatic electronic flashes. Yes, the slow lenses, slow shutter speeds, knob winders and other limitations of the C3 and C4 series can be amusing by today's standards. But if you're as skilled as dad was in the art and science of photography, it's all you need; nothing more and nothing less. Even with demanding and unforgiving Kodachrome 25 and 64.
Enjoy your "Argi" collection. Thanks for writing about them and sharing pictures of them.
-- John Alan Linds
For more info Visit: the Argus Collector's site and the Argus Discussion Forum
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Revised: January 31, 2016 . Copyright © 1998-2002 Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved. This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind. Information in this document is subject to change without notice. Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.