Saturday, August 1, 2009

Argus Camera Museum, Ann Arbor

There was once a time when Ann Arbor, Michigan, had a place on the map in the world of photography. This was roughly from 1936 when the Argus model A became an immediate hit, to 1962 when production of the Argus C3 "brick" ceased in Ann Arbor. The model A had much to do with the popularization of the new 35mm format, and the various models C were the all time most popular 35mm camera.

There is a nice little informal museum in Ann Arbor with a great collection of Argus cameras and gear on display. It is in the very building where so many Argus cameras were made. The building itself predates Argus, being built sometime in the late 1800s for the manufacturing of furniture. When Argus left the building in the late 1960s it was taken over by the University of Michigan which used it for storage and insect research. Now it is gentrified and has a number of offices both for the University and private businesses. The museum is tucked into an L- shaped lobby on the second floor. Its industrial heritage is apparent.

A number of worn glass and wood display cases hold the cameras and assorted photo equipment. The museum is open to anybody who happens to wander in and there is no admission charge. It is a bit dark inside. The location is 535 W. Williams St, Ann Arbor, MI 48103.

The building is owned by two prominent local businessmen, William Martin and Joe O'Neal. They call their enterprise C3 Partners, after the Argus C3 camera. C3 Partners assembled a fairly comprehensive collection of Argus cameras and opened the museum in 1987.

None of these cameras was designed for the professional photojournalist or wedding photographer. Rather, their natural market was the amateur photographer who looked for value.

I had a happy coincidence during one recent visit to the museum. I struck up a conversation with a white-beareded man who worked in an adjacent University office. His name was Bill, and in the early 1950s he worked for Argus in this very building grinding and inspecting lenses for the Argus military periscope.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Argus A2B 35mm camera

I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so it is logical to start with Argus. I used to live just a few blocks from the old Argus building. That building now has various offices and the studio of WUOM, the University of Michigan radio station. There is a nice little Argus museum in the lobby.

The Argus Camera Company was not Ann Arbor's first Argus. In 1835, while Michigan was still a territory, there was the Michigan Argus weekly newspaper. It was the precursor of the daily Ann Arbor News, which sadly ceased publication this month. I got my start as a professional photographer at The Ann Arbor News in the early 1980s.

In my opinion, the Art Deco lines of the Argus A make it the best looking Argus camera. It also has a place in history. Arguably, it was the popularity of the Argus A series that established 35mm as a common format. Leica is credited with developing the 35mm format for still cameras, but their high precision and high price made it an elite product. The Argus A was a depression-era camera marketed to the masses, and the masses bought some half million of them over the fifteen years from 1937 to 1952.

Argus cameras came to us by way of a successful radio company called International Radio Corporation. They had even more success with their new camera and so left the radio business to concentrate on cameras. International Radio Company became International Research Corporation, and went from making Bakelite radios to Bakelite cameras. IRC owner Charles Verschoor had encountered the Leica camera in Europe in the early 1930s and decided to make an economical consumer version. The timing was good because Kodak had just introduced the 35mm daylight loading cartridge. Kodak developed the 35mm cartridge for their high quality German-made Retina 35mm cameras. Argus was the first camera made in the United States to use this convenient new film cartridge.

When the Argus A came out in 1936 it sold for $12.50. A similar looking Leica could cost up to $200, and a folding Kodak Retina cost $52.50. The base model has two position focusing: near and far. Model A2 has a built-in extinction meter. This type of meter is awkward to use but is inexpensive, has no moving parts, doesn't require obsolete mercury batteries, and is better than no meter at all. In this regard Argus was way ahead of Leica which would wait decades before offering a built-in meter. Model A2F has full focusing as well as the meter.

The standard lens is a collapsing 3 element 50mm f4.5. There is also a model AA (Argoflash, 1940 - 1942) that has a non-focusing f6.3 lens.

There are many variations within the A series. For example, the camera pictured is an A2B, which was made from 1939 - 1950, both before and after WWII. The best source I could find for model descriptions is Hrad Kuzyk's "A Modern User's Guide To The Argus A/A2 Camera." I would like to know if my camera is the pre or post WWII model. Well, according to Mr. Kuzyk, it has the lens barrel and uncoated lens and fixed pressure plate of the pre war version, but the shutter speeds and shutter release of the post war. So perhaps it's a trans war, as Argus scrambled to find parts during the war years. It sports shutter speeds of 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/150 along with B & T, and apertures from f4.5 through to f18.

In looking at old advertisements for the Argus, I noticed that the film was referred to as "double-frame 35mm," perhaps because at that time 35mm was generally thought of as movie film, which uses a smaller area of the film per frame. The film came in 18 and 36 frame rolls in 1936. It is interesting that the shorter roll grew to 20 and then 24 frames.

Good sources of information about Argus Model A cameras:

Hrad Kuzyk's "A Modern User's Guide To The Argus A/A2 Camera

note, this is a pdf and will take a minute to load,