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The Argus C3 was a low-priced rangefinder camera mass-produced from 1939 to 1966 by Argus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. The camera was the best-selling 35mm camera in the world for nearly three decades, and helped popularize the 35mm format. Due to its shape, size, and weight, it is commonly referred to as "The Brick" by photographers (in Japan its nickname translates as "The Lunchbox"). The most famous 20th-century photographer who used it was Tony Vaccaro, who employed this model during World War II (see under Famous Patrons in this article).
The C3 was constructed primarily of Bakelite plastic and metal castings. The design featured an unusual but simple diaphragm shutter built into the camera body, so the camera could make use of interchangeable lenses without the need for a complex focal plane shutter. The rangefinder was separate from the viewfinder and was coupled to the lens through a series of gears located on the outside of the camera body. The profusion of knobs, gears, buttons, levers, and dials on the camera lent it a "scientific" look that was found in customer surveys to be one of the things buyers most liked about the camera. The C3 was principally designed by Dr. Gustave Fassin.
By virtue of its low price and reputation for rugged durability the Argus C3 managed to outlast most of its American competition and fend off precision German-built cameras and the cheap high quality Japanese cameras that began to enter the American market in the 1950s. But eventually the design simply became too outdated and clumsy and production ended in 1966 after sales had slumped. Interestingly, sales of the C3 had slumped many times during its production life, and each time Argus announced they were going to discontinue the camera, dealers and photographers would rush to buy what they believed to be the last of the cameras, leading Argus to reverse their decision to end production several times.
It has been argued the Argus C3 is responsible for popularizing the use of 35mm film, and considering the long production run and the high number of Argus C3 cameras made, this may very well be true, especially in its native United States.
Although the design is now over 70 years old, the C3 retains a strong following due to its simplicity, durability, and nostalgic value. Used C3s are cheap and plentiful, and their simple construction makes them relatively easy to repair.
The series began in 1938, with the model C, equipped with a rangefinder which was not coupled to the lens. Focusing a C is a two step process, first finding the distance using the built-in rangefinder, then focusing the lens by rotating it until a scale on the side matches the distance given by the rangefinder. Very early production C cameras had high and low range shutter speeds marked on the speed dial, with a separate switch to select the desired speed range. The high/low speed selector was soon deleted from production, and speeds controlled by the rotary dial with 10 marked speeds.
The C was replaced within just a few months by the C2, with a geared coupling between the rangefinder and the lens, greatly accelerating focusing and making the camera much more convenient to use. Finally, in 1939 the C3 was introduced, with electrical plugs on the cameras left side for a battery powered flash, synchronized to the shutter.
The basic C3 model underwent only minor revisions from its introduction until it was discontinued in 1966. For instance, the number of shutter speeds was lowered from ten to seven to five, an accessory shoe was added, and the exposure reminder dial on the back of the camera was removed. There was a variant featuring color-coded exposure controls known as the Colormatic. A second-generation C3 with an improved lens and more comfortable controls, the Standard C3, came out in 1958, though it was otherwise nearly identical to its predecessor.
Three variants were offered in addition to the basic C3: the Matchmatic, Golden Shield, and C33. The first two, produced from 1958 to 1966, were sold with a selenium light meter attachment but were otherwise essentially identical to the Standard C3. Both models also featured distinctive finishes: two-tone tan and black leatherette on the Matchmatic and metallized PET film coating on the Golden Shield. The C33, sold from 1959 to 1960, was a significant departure from the basic model though it still featured the classic "brick" shape. It offered numerous improveme s over the older model including an integrated rangefinder and coupled light meter.
In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Polly Perkins aka Gwyneth Paltrow is a reporter, packing an Argus C3 around through all sorts of mayhem.
Tony Vaccaro soldier and photojournalist in World War II took most of his images with an Argus C3, even developing the images in soldier's helmets.