The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The bricklike Argus C3 camera launched countless photographers

More than 2 million Argus C3 cameras were sold from 1939 to 1966. For many Americans, it was their first exposure to photography. (Kit Farwell)
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Roy Deppa spent the summers of 1969 and 1970 backpacking across Europe. Accompanying Roy was his trusty Argus C3, the film camera he had used as a yearbook photographer at Gaithersburg High School.

“One day I left my backpack by my bunk in a youth hostel, and when I came back, I realized that someone had rifled through my things,” wrote Roy, who lives in Brookeville. “It was obvious that they took the camera out, looked it over, and put it back! After that, I really treasured that camera! If it had been a more modern model, I would have lost not only my camera, but a couple of dozen irreplaceable photos.”

Now there’s a marketing slogan. The Argus C3: Not good enough to steal.

I’m sorry. That’s a harsh assessment. After including the C3 last week in my list of unreasonable antipathies, I heard from many fans who begged to differ. The C3, a range-finder camera made in various versions from 1939 to 1966, is known as the Brick for its rectilinear lines.

“Why oh why the irritation with the humble, sturdy C3?” wondered Jim Witkin of Takoma Park. “That’s the camera I learned on, back in the 1960s. It was the first 35mm camera given to me by my father, an engineer (naturally), who was attracted to its gears, clean lines and logical layout … And it was indestructible, which was good for a 12-year-old.”

Jim said the Argus is what set him on his photographic path, adding: “I’d think twice before trying to drive over one. Your tire might lose out.”

John Miller from Manassas is another member of the Arguscenti who was irritated by my column on irritations. “I grew up in Luster’s Gate, Va., where my dad ran a country store,” he wrote. “He gave me an Argus C3 when I was in seventh grade and I was thrilled.”

John built a darkroom and started taking pictures. Working with a basic camera like the Argus teaches a person the intricacies of exposure and shutter speed. John used the C3 to shoot events at Blacksburg High School and became photography editor of the school’s yearbook.

“Of course, I have to admit that was 65 years ago,” he wrote. “You can see I have a sentimental attachment to the old Argus.”

Silver Spring’s Tom Otwell wrote: “Think of how many budding photogs cut their film teeth by owning one. They were clunky, brick-like, functional and industrial-looking — reflecting their times maybe — but they certainly must have taught a generation of camera buffs how to figure out f-stops and shutter speeds.”

There are two cameras that Kit Farwell of Burke especially treasures. One is his grandfather’s Leica IIIc, made by the German company that has become synonymous with high-end cameras. The other is the Argus C3 that Kit bought in 1965 at Pipkin Cameras in Oklahoma City when he was 14.

“The Leica, of course, is a classic but so is the Argus,” Kit wrote. “With manual shutter and f-stop, it was a real camera with which to learn and could take great photos. The Argus was built like a tank. I saw one that had a big dent in the corner after being dropped on a concrete driveway and still took perfect photos.”

It was probably the driveway that needed repair.

Lawrence Tagrin of Montgomery Village thinks mastering a simple camera like the C3 can make a person a better photographer.

“I hate the way digital imaging has degraded the art of photography,” he wrote. “A lot of serious photographers got their start with a basic box camera — Argus C3, Kodak Brownie, etc. — and went on to produce great imagery later in life. The combination of a box camera and a small home darkroom leads to a lot more knowledge than a cellphone camera and editing software. It also forces the photographer to think a lot more about the final image they are hoping to get.”

The District’s Debra McDonald said her husband, Herb, was miffed at my dismissal of the Argus C3. He had one in Korea in 1953 and he adored it.

“He still has some beautiful portraits that he took,” Debra wrote. “It was stolen many, many years later, and he wasn’t using it but was still so upset.”

That does prove that the C3 is not theftproof.

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