Argus Adventures

A camera review with a view. Photos were taken around Downtown Chicago in December 2016, using a freshly-CLA'd Argus C3 with a 50mm f/3.5 from 1955 and Ilford Delta 3200 @ 1600.

There's something special about using old film cameras from days long gone. Maybe it's the thought that the camera being used has real history behind it, having taken untold legions of exposures in the decades since it was assembled, passing hands of maybe two, three generations of users. Or maybe it's the easily traceable evolution of human engineering thought and craft, where each successive decade of camera technology brought with it new tricks, affecting the way it looks, feels, functions as well as the the style, the character, the soul of the camera... 
I have owned a number of film cameras from different time periods, always on the lookout for something new to eat through rolls of photosensitive polyester. Araki once said that in order to change your photos, you need to change cameras. I'm a firm believer in this, and lucky for me and other like-minded photographers, there's around a century's worth of different cameras to saddle up and try to tame. 
At a friend's party I spied a couple of old cameras, tucked away in the far corners of a dusty bookshelf. One was a collapsible Kodak Tourist 6x9 which, unfortunately, had a few parts missing and couldn't be reanimated, and the other was a little brick-shaped art-deco-inspired 35mm camera - the Argus C3. Covered with thick layers of dust, it responded well to basic operation and had nothing missing. The camera would stick at all shutter speeds as well as require Hulk-like strength to change focus and aperture. The back wouldn't even stay shut. But the doctor had high hopes for the patient. 
Having borrowed the Argus, I began the immersion process, surrounding myself with wikis and manuals. Made from 1939 till 1966 by Argus in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The camera was surprisingly entry level, designed in the late 30's. Saw use by photojournalists during WWII, even managed to snap some iconic shots from the front lines. In the later years it saw widespread use in many American homes, its affordability, ruggedness and repairability fueling its popularity. Even Jimmy Carter had one. But with the flood of inexpensive Japanese SLRs in the 60's, the archaic rangefinder design of the C3 phased it out into obscurity. 
The Brick (as it was affectionately known) had a coupled rangefinder mechanism with a separate viewfinder. Focusing had to be done in one window, framing in another. Both finder windows were some of the smallest I've encountered - even smaller than in my Olympus Stylus Epic - which didn't lend to usability. The leaf shutter speeds went from 1/300 to 1/10 and included provisions for cable release and bulb. Winding the film was manual and separate from winding the shutter. The lens is, surprisingly, interchangeable, but required tools and minutes to change and an external finder for any other focal length than 50. The bare essentials were there, but literally nothing else. 
This skeleton crew of camera functions was a contributing factor to its simplicity and ruggedness. The camera proved incredibly easy to disassemble and work on. The original lubrication had half-evaporated and half-turned-to-stone, but that was quickly remedied with a fresh coating. Play had developed over time in the gears, knobs and dials giving that bucket-full-of-bolts effect - but everything was tightened to spec with simple garden variety screwdrivers and wrenches. Very easy to see why the camera continues to work well even 61 years after it rolled off the production line - inside was a date stamped indicating a 1955 production year.
After everything was put together, the kid-on-Christmas-Eve syndrome took over and the decision was made to test the camera next day. Weather conditions were highly unfavorable for testing out an all-metal, f/3.5, all- manual camera from 1955. Nearly sub-zero (that's in Fahrenheit, folks) temps, hours of traffic and inches of snow separated us from our intended destination of Downtown Chicago. Mercury was dropping faster than the sun on the horizon as I hoped I could still feel the unfamiliar controls of the C3 through my thick winter gloves. Film of choice was Ilford Delta 3200, rated at 1600 to keep the grain from consuming the image. Original choice was Kodak Tri-X 400 to keep the entire package in the same era, but the mailman failed to deliver forcing the switch, which actually allowed me to shoot for much longer because the light got sucked out pretty quick with all the extra snow in the air. 
The designation was chosen simply because there is no better fit to the form and function of this photographic relic and its place in history than Chicago's own iconic architecture, with its arcane pillars of weathered steel and iron, chiseled art-deco-esque bastions of concrete and slabs of modernist lines receding into infinity. Chicago's facade went through many styles and movements, fueled by advances in construction technology and architectural sciences. But its roots are still bare for the eye to see with the future layered over it. Much of the same applies to the C3. 
I was joined on this trip by lovely fellow 43S-member Kris (wo)manning the A and B cams for our video review of the trip. Dodging snowflakes, she kept the video rolling while I was busy keeping a mental checklist of the 10+ steps I had to do before taking a single shot on the Argus. Plan was to try to score shots that would reveal the gritty limestone-laden angles of a city that originally inspired Batman's mobster-mastertown of Gotham. Segue through to Ohio Street to Michigan Avenue, make our way down to the Riverwalk and continue clicking all along Wacker Drive. Sneak peaks of the Water Tower, John Hancock, NBC and Tribune towers, as well as the transformers building (35 E. Wacker Dr.) and Merchandise Mart - all were on the snowed-over map that was increasingly harder to follow. 
One of the reasons I like using medium format cameras is because you have less frames to worry about, allowing you to focus more on quality, than quantity. All of a sudden having 36 shots to work with sometimes feels like a burden on short, one-day trips. I actually found that fact comforting the first time using a new old camera, resurrected from the dead. Which leads me to mention some of the things I disliked while using it - first of which is ergonomics. Or rather lack of them. It takes very little time to figure out that this camera is not going to be comfortable to hold. Ironically it takes much longer to figure out how to hold the darn little brick in such a way as to not cover up any viewports or get the shutter finger jammed in the way of the shutter cock/release lever. When the shutter button is actuated, the cocking lever springs back, and if the finger is in the way, you get a very, very long exposure (if you know what I mean). At least some shots fell prey to this malice. The other biggest gripe I had with this camera is that everything is manual and separate, including the frame advance winder. Accustomed to using mainly 60s Japanese SLRs and up, where the shutter cock and frame advance are all in one lever - here it's actually three(!) separate mechanisms. One for the shutter cock, one for the frame wind, and one safety latch to allow the frame winder to wind. While probably the stuff of pink fluffy dreams for fans of multiple exposure photography, I was actually quite enfuriated at having to remember to do so much to accomplish something so simple - leading to multiple shots being overlayed one atop another. Did I also mention that I wasn't a fan of the brick-like shape and ergos? I did? Good, I'll mention it again, because it really is not made for human hands. Maybe for robot hands... 
But it wouldn't be a proper camera review without mentioning some of the positives of this fully mechanical monster. And there are quite a few. Surprisingly they have more to do more with its flaws than anything else. The main reason I picked it up is because I really wanted to create some imagery that looked like it came from another time period. Anachronism is the name of the game for me when I use vintage gear and the included 50mm lens delivers in spades giving you that vintage "look". Supposedly coated, the effect is thankfully nowhere to be seen, with images full of silky-smooth, flat-as-LOG gradations of gray almost completely devoid of contrast. Due to a short focal flange distance the lens is surprisingly sharp in the center with minimal distortion, while its antiquated optical formula contributes copius amounts of vignetting that's present even when stopped down. All combined, makes shots look like newsreel footage from the past. Second positive is that just like any film camera, this one slows you down and lets you think more about the content. But where other film cameras are more of a moderately mindful experience, this one is hands- down almost ritualistic in the way it forces you to adhere to the craft. Almost nothing short of actually picking up an old 8x10 - complete with bellows, dark slide, curtain, ground glass and all - can compare. And third is, of course, the conversation starter effect. Just that day alone, three people approached me interested to find out more about the camera. Just not that many crazies like us out there any more, I guess... 
All in all it was a wonderful experience, will be a sad day when I have to return the camera back to my friend. The Argus C3 is a great camera for very niche and very vintage-looking photos. Just treat the cons as pros and embrace the craft. Already looking forward to my next vintage camera to try out - have an old 4x5 from the 30's which I still have yet to fix... 
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