Friday, July 07, 2017

Argus History: the Model M

I'm looking forward to getting some color pictures from my little Argus Model M.  Thanks again to James Harr I have a couple strips of unperforated 35mm Konica 160 which I have rolled up in trimmed 120 backing paper.  With a single shutter speed of about 1/30 and an aperture range of 6.3 to 12.7 I think the camera should be able to easily handle a good variety of picture opportunities.  Meanwhile, I'll repost an article which originally appeared on my web site about the camera.

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Argus Model M - Designer: Gustave Fassin

The Argus Model M made its appearance in 1939, the same year as the phenomenally successful Argus C3. The streamlined design of the ultra-compact Model M presented a considerable contrast to the heavy and boxy C3 rangefinder and seemed at the time to be a good candidate for rounding out the Argus offerings which included the highly successful A and C line of 35mm cameras as well as the Argoflex medium format twin-lens box camera. As it turned, however, the Model M was in production for only about a year.

Two factors contributed to the early demise of the Model M. The first was a temporary setback. Kodak stopped producing 828 roll film during the war, leaving buyers with little film available to feed the 828-format cameras. More importantly, perhaps, the imagination of the camera buying public had been captured by the idea of 35mm cartridge and the cameras that used that format which were offered with a large number of available features including fast lenses, high-speed shutters, coupled rangefinders, and a normal film capacity as high as 36 frames per roll.

The little Model M could produce a negative exactly the same size as the larger 35mm cameras, but that only gave eight full-frame exposures on a roll of Kodak paper-backed 828. Doors on either side of the frame could be flipped in to yield twice the number of half-frame exposures.  A transparent green mask in the viewfinder showed the borders of the half-frame image. The Anastigmat Triplet lens was of good quality, but had a maximum aperture of only f-6.3.  The simple shutter was limited to a single instant speed of about one-thirtieth of a second and a Time setting. Even with this limited feature set the construction was probably a little too complicated to meet the $7.50 price point the company was looking for with the Model M.

After WWII when 828 roll film again became widely available, Argus decided to further simplify the construction of the basic Model M design by replacing the collapsible lens with a fixed barrel, and the three element lens gave way to a two-element design. The half-frame capability was also eliminated. The resulting hybrid was sold by Argus from 1947 to 1949 under two names: the Model 19 and the Minca 28. The problem with those design decisions was that they threw the little Argus 828 camera into a large pool of cheap, small-format cameras. Argus ultimately sold the production dies for their 828 camera to a Philadelphia company and it remained on the market for a few years under the names Delco 828 and Camro 28.

There is a curious fact about the Argus Model M that provides some insight into its original design and possibly into the ultimate market failure of the camera. That is the dimesions of the negative which, as mentioned above, is identical to the standard 35mm frame. Kodak's 828 roll film is the same width as 35mm film, but the roll film does not have the double row of sprocket holes, meaning that the full 828 frame would normally offer about 30 percent greater negative area than 35mm. So, why did Argus decide to give up a substantial portion of that available film area using a smaller 35mm-size frame and thereby sacrifice some image quality?

The answer to the frame size mystery can be found in 1939 magazine ads for the Model M. In those ads we find that the Model M is built to use " 35mm. Arguspan film or specially spooled Dufaycolor film for natural color shots." It is not surprising that Argus would avoid promoting the 828 Kodak film which would fit in its camera and instead tout two brands made by other companies with which it had marketing agreements. What is most interesting, though, is that the film recommended by Argus is specified to be "35mm". Arguspan may have been actually produced by Ansco prior to the war; it yielded 12 exposures per roll and cost 35 cents. Dufaycolor, produced first in France and later in England, was orginally marketed primarily as a motion picture film and most probably had the same continuous borders of sprocket holes as any other standard 35 mm film. So, the Model M was designed from the beginning to use paper-backed 35mm film with sprocket hole borders which dictated a narrower frame width than standard 828 roll film. Furthermore, the supply of Dufaycolor was likely drying up by the mid-1940s as it was superseded by the more advanced color film processes embodied in Kodachrome and Technicolor. So the Argus gamble to take advantage of an alternative film supply in the end turned out to be a bad bet for the future of the little Argus M.

Aside from a missing Argus logo, my Model M looks nearly perfect, but it turned out to have some problems. The pictures from the first roll were all out of focus, and the negatives were riddled with light leak streaks. I disassembled the camera and found that the spongy packing in the collapsible lens mount was deteriorated and loose. The packing material was both letting some light by, and it also prevented the lens from fully extending to the proper focal length. I removed the lens mount packing material, reassembled the camera and loaded up another roll of Kentmere 100. The extended mount seemed to be making a good seal, but I layed on some black tape just in case. The second roll of film I put through the camera showed no light leaks or focus problems, and my expectations for the Anastigmat triplet lens were fully met. The images produced by the properly functioning camera were sharp from edge to edge. There is a small amount of vignetting in the corners of full-frame pictures, but I believe that is not from a lens fault, but rather from the shadow of the large coil spring which holds the lens mount in the extended position.

A useful lesson I learned from using the Model M is that it is possible to use 35mm film in 828 cameras without backing paper. I cut a tab on the 35mm film end and then rolled the film onto the little 828 reels and put it in the camera, making sure that it was advancing properly. Of course this must all be done in a dark bag, and the framing windows on the camera's back must first be covered with black tape. When attempting this for the first time, it seemed like there was a small chance of success due to the springy nature of the film. However, both rolls of film I've shot so far in the camera went through without a hitch, and one can get twice the number of frames from a single film loading than the camera was originally intended to produce.


JR Smith said...

About the only Argus I have had experience with was the C3. Believe it or not, we had about six in our high school art class to be loaned to students during the photography semester. You signed them out like a library book.

This would have been mid to late 1970s and I was surprised they were still in service at our school. I guess they figured they were old and tough and there wasn't much more of a beating that we could dish out than they'd already taken.

The design of your Model M looks interesting though. Far more curb appeal than the C3.

Mike said...

The first camera I bought for myself was a C3. So, that would have been about 1958 or a bit later. I got mine used in a pawn shop, but Argus actually continued to make the C3 up to 1966. The C3 and the Model M were both designed by Fassin.

James Harr said...

Too bad someone at Argus couldn't foresee the 'sprocket mania' that would hit a mere 75 years later and open up that image mask to let the light flow over those sprocket holes. These cameras would be snapped up by hipsters across the globe!