It doesn’t have the smooth lines of the Olympus Pen, the retro flair of the Polaroid SX-70, or the shapely front panel of the Rolleiflex. It was little more than a Bakelite box with a lens on the front. But for nearly 30 years, the Argus C3 was one of the world’s best-selling cameras. Affectionately dubbed the ‘brick’ (or the ‘lunchbox’ by the Japanese), nearly two million were manufactured during a production run that began in 1939 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and spanned nearly three decades.
Back then, the name ‘Argus’ was as well known as Canon or Nikon is today, as those who couldn’t afford Zeiss, Contax or Leica cameras flocked to the inexpensive C3. ‘A luxury camera in every detail,’ went the slogan. ‘Except price.’
The C3 weighed around three-quarters of a kilogram, and while it wasn’t notable for style, ease of use or ergonomics, its awkward, ‘gadgety’ look was a hit. In fact, it was considered to look ‘scientific’ thanks to the series of external gears that connected the rangefinder to the lens. The back of the camera had two windows, one for the rangefinder and one for the viewfinder; focusing the camera involved measuring the distance to the subject with the rangefinder, then rotating the lens until its scale matched the rangefinder measurement.
The C3 had seven, ten or five shutter speeds, depending on its year of production, which could be adjusted by a dial on the front. Aperture was set by turning a dial that ringed the lens—anything from f/3.5 to f/16—while a battery-powered flash could be attached and synchronised with the shutter.
The C3’s stroke of genius, however, was a diaphragm shutter built into the camera body, which meant photographers could use interchangeable lenses without having to master the more complex focal plane shutter in use on other models.
It took colour-slide film—and helpfully, slide projectors were also manufactured under the Argus brand.
Its parent company, International Radio Corporation, was responsible for the world’s first mass-produced AC/DC radios and pocket radios in the 1930s. It turned to cameras in an attempt to compensate for heavy fluctuations in radio sales, as people primarily bought them in winter. Founder Charles Verschoor was awarded a patent in 1936 for a 35-millimetre camera design, and production began with the advent of WWI.
Photojournalist Tony Vaccaro carried an Argus C3 through the Normandy landings of D-Day, scavenging film where he could and developing prints with chemicals mixed in soldiers’ helmets. (After the war, he became a noted fashion and portrait photographer for Life and Look magazines.)
The advent of inexpensive Japanese SLR cameras in the 1960s sounded the death knell for the Argus, but many C3s live on—their simple construction makes them easy to repair, and the ‘Famous for reliability’ claim in their magazine advertisements proved true. It’s only left to speculate which film format would have taken precedence without the Argus C3 propelling 35-millimetre film to its industry-standard position.