Argus Day at 20

Twenty years ago this August, I played a small part in starting an Internet photography thing, that frankly I’m surprised has lasted so long.

Along with a few internet friends in an online camera group, the Argus Collectors Group, we sought to start an annual “Argus Day” to celebrate and promote this beloved brand. Participants in Argus Day would be encouraged to take their favorite Argus camera with them wherever they went that day to take photographs and to spread Argus awareness. The ACG would publish submitted photographs taken on Argus Day in an online gallery.

Many photography groups have established similar “camera holidays.” These included Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, World Toy Camera Day, 620 Film Photography Day, and International Brownie Camera Photography Day.

With an eye to making Argus Day a little more distinctive and just a bit quirky among the various film camera days, it was decided that instead of occurring on the same day each year, each subsequent Argus day would occur one year + one day from the previous year’s observance.

The first Argus Day was held on Argust (August – ha!) 1st, 2001. The second was on Argust 2, 2002, the third on Argust 3rd, 2003, and so on. As I mentioned, this year marked the 20th edition of Argus Day, and accordingly, it rightly fell on Thursday, Argust 20, 2020.

My Story

My first 35mm camera – the Argus C3 “Standard” – circa 1966

My love of Argus cameras began when I was 12 or 13 years old when dear old dad, handed down his old Argus C3 Standard rangefinder camera to me. Dad loved photography and shot some amazing Kodachromes during his two hitches in the US Army while stationed in Greenland and then in Germany. Dad only shot slide film and the sensory experiences of those special nights when he’d come home from work with a new set of slides from his most recent completed roll of film remain etched in my memory to this day – the bright yellow Kodak box of slides, the dusty smell of the portable projection screen, the ker-chunk of the carousel projector.

Dad, a frugal man, never sent a roll for processing before it was completely exposed so some times we were viewing Easter slides, while seeing the prior year’s Christmas shots at the same time. The best slide shows were the nights when dad would honor our request and show slides from his Army days, or when he was sparkin’ mom. The images were color saturated and beautiful and it was fun listening to dad and mom recount those earlier days.

Prior to receiving my C3 from dad, I had cut my teeth (photographically speaking) first with mom’s old Kodak Brownie Hawkeye box camera when I was nine or ten. From there I moved on to using a Kodak Pocket Instamatic in junior high school. The Kodak took photos on the then ubiquitous and pretty inferior 110 film cartridge. I remember taking that camera on my 8th grade field trip to Washington DC. Pretty much all of my classmates were carrying similar low-end110 cameras from a variety of manufactures.

Dad was pleased with my composition of those DC snapshots and told me that my good work merited his old Argus. Wow! I was thrilled…. finally a “real” camera – with all the proper adjustable settings – aperture, shutter speed, and focus!

Of course, the Argus was more than a little outdated by the late 1970s when I received it. By that time there was a growing variety of high quality consumer single-lens reflex cameras available with superior optics and advanced electronics including the Canon AE-1, the Nikon FM, the Olympus OM-1.

By 1978, the time of the rangefinder camera had already come and gone, and in fact, at the time when my humble Argus “brick” was new in the mid-1960s, Japanese manufacturers had already redefined what a 35mm rangefinder camera was, offering a plethora of more feature packed compact rangefinders in smaller and more ergonomic bodies.

Compare the mid-60s Argus C3 Standard alongside the Canonet QL19.

TIRED (L) : by the mid-60s, the Argus C3 rangefinder was nothing but a cosmetic rehash of a 25 year old design which featured a separate rangefinder window, a slow f/3.5 triplet lens, no metering, and a three leaf shutter with a top speed of 1/300 (give or take).
WIRED (R): The Canonet QL-19 was more compact and lighter than the Argus “brick” and boasted a wealth of technological advances including a fast f/1.9 lens, built in self-timer, a film-plane shutter with X-sync to 1/500 sec, and CdS cell metering with aperture priority EE.

Yes, I would have loved a Canonet or Yashica Electro, but I was only 12 years old and my only disposable income came from my weekly allowance. I truly loved my Argus and I took it everywhere with me for the next several months until the flash sync started malfunctioning. Then, once again, dad came to the rescue as I started high school – handing down an even cooler vintage camera – his old East German manufactured Ihagee Exa SLR. Perhaps that will be subject of a future blog post. But for now, back to Argus…

What’s an Argus?

Given the important role that the Argus camera played in making 35mm the popular film format it because, it’s somewhat sad that more Americans don’t know much about Argus.

The Argus camera came into being in the mid 1930s, when Charles Verschoor, the president of IRC, the International Radio Company in Ann Arbor Michigan saw the compact Leica 35mm candid camera while in Europe. Before the advent of the 35mm film cassette, the camera the typical household was most likely to own was a either a simple medium format box camera like the Kodak Brownie, or perhaps a simple folding camera like the Ansco Readyset. They were not compact, they were not particularly easy to use, and they typically didn’t produce high quality images.

IRC was a manufacturer radio receivers and had established a sweet niche in that market producing ‘compact’ Kadette radio sets many of which were housed in cabinets made of primitive plastics, such as Bakelite. But radio sales were highly seasonable – up in the winter months when families stayed indoors and radio propagation conditions were better, and down in the summer months when more folks were out of doors and radio reception was poor.

Verschoor was looking for a second product line to help level out the annual revenue stream for IRC and the new 35mm camera seemed to fit the bill. IRC’s collaboration with existing plastic firms would be beneficial providing a source of inexpensive sturdy and lightweight bodies for their cameras.

In 1936, IRC introduced the Argus Model A, and the rest, as they say, is history. It was an instant success, selling 30,000 units in its first week. Argus quickly introduced a variety of other models with more features, including the Argus C line of rangefinder cameras, first introduced in 1939, which featured a built in rangefinder to set the focus.

It’s almost impossible to overstate how responsible the Argus camera was for making 35mm photography as popular as it became. If you wish to learn more about the Argus A and how it changed photography for the every man, I highly recommend Hrad Kuzyk’s free book, 35mm for the Proletariat. For a deeper dive into the company and it’s photographic products, get a copy of Henry Gambino’s 2005 book, Argomania: A Look at Argus Cameras and the Company That Made Them.

The Leica was the ultimate gadget but with retail costs topping $200, it was a luxury item for the rich. The Argus Model A was introduced in 1936 with a MSRP of only $12.50

But what is the Argus Collectors Group?

At the dawn of the interwebs in the mid-90s, I discovered out this new thing called eBay where you could bid on and buy all sorts of nostalgic treasures from your past – things you had long since discarded as ‘junque.’

It didn’t take long for me to acquire a new used vintage Argus C3 camera and I was magically transported back to my childhood. I started taking my new brick with me everywhere, and found it was quite the conversation starter. I remember showing it to my dad on one of my visits home, and he just smiled and laughed when he saw it – it brought back fond memories for him too.

At the same time, I came across an internet SIG called the Argus Collectors Group, a global virtual community of similar Argophiles who were obsessed with their Argus cameras.

What a group! I learned much about Argus history from that dynamic community while making many good friends. The group was created as an offshoot of the IDCC, the International Directory of Camera Collectors. Noted Seattle camera collector and historian, Bob Kelly, was our group’s moderator at the time I joined. When he retired from the task, I took over the role for a couple of years before passing the mantle on to Wesley Furr, who has provided steady leadership ever since.

The ACG remains a very active and dynamic group and continues to grow to this day. Over the years, this close-knit group has undertaken a number of projects and programs, including an annual Holiday Lights photography contest, and the Argus Argosy, where members passed a single Argus camera from photographer to photographer from around the world to make a global online gallery.

The ACG’s premiere annual event is the ACG Gathering, organized by Ron Norwood and our late and sadly missed friend Doug Wilcox. The Gathering was first held in Martinsville, VA in 2001 before taking up residence ever since in Eden, NC. Today the ACG is closely affiliated with the Argus Museum in Ann Arbor, which also hosts an annual Argus Conference each October.

Argust 20, 2020

I end this post sharing some of the photographs I made this year on Argus Day. You will be able to see my two submissions, along with my wife’s and many other photographs from the many talented ACG members online here going all the way back to the second Argus Day (sadly, the first Argus Day gallery was lost when we changed host servers.)

Ellen and I have been fortunate enough to be able to continue to work from home during the Covid 19 pandemic, so this year we both participated from home. She photographed our gardens with an Argus 75 box camera while I took a lunch time walk around our hometown of Cheshire, CT with my favorite C3, a 1948 seven speed variant, serial number 233428 loaded with Ilford Pan F+ 50. I developed our film with Rodinol, scanned the negatives and then tinted them in Photoshop.

I welcome your comments and feel free to drop me a line at james@ab1dq.com. Thanks for looking!

Published by

AB1DQ

Ham radio operator and electronics hobbyist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.