Sunday, January 24, 2010

Arguses Resurrected

Imagine that you were an amateur photographer in America about 50 years ago, not terribly well off but doing okay, thank you. A Leica might be too rich for your blood, but you like rangefinders and you want the versatility of interchangeable lenses and good German glass. What might be the contents of your camera bag?

One viable outfit might center around the Argus C44, America's world-class 35mm rangefinder from that period, with a set of lenses. As a backup, or because it was your starter camera and you're still attached to it, you might own an Argus 21 Markfinder, a simple but equally high quality zone-focus camera built on the same chassis, with a fixed (well, actually removable, but not replaceable with anything) 50mm lens. You'd need the argus multi finder to go with the lenses, and an external handheld light meter, and a flash attachment and some other odds and ends. The whole kit would fit comfortably in a handsome leather case and would allow you to deal with most any photographic situation with great results and considerable style.

So this is what I saw in an auction listing not long ago, and although I've never wanted to own an Argus -- I've always assumed that a C3 brick would find its way into my hands someday, as part of a lot with something I really wanted, but it never has -- I decided to take the plunge. This was one of those items where the condition was a total gamble; nothing looked abused, but there was no representation of anything being in working order or having been used in a long time.

In due course the cameras arrived, in a leather case whose odor spoke richly of the diverse life-forms that had hitched a ride with the gear, probably none too happy at being aroused from their decades of peaceful existence in some closet to be transported around the country in cold planes and mail trucks. Not having handled cameras of this type before, I was impressed with their fit and finish, and externally they looked okay. The camera bodies and standard lenses had some minor surface tarnish and pitting,but just enough to give them patina, while the wide and tele lenses shone like new. The cameras are handsomely styled, and the lenses for the C44 are probably the most attractive photographic lenses I have ever seen, with their clean, fluted styling and matching lens hoods.

Functionally, the news was not so good. The shutter on the C44 worked, but was very slow, often hanging open for several seconds on the 1/15 setting. The Markfinder shutter and wind mechanism were fused absolutely immobile. Large areas of rust were on the shutter blades, although these did not seem to be the source of the problem. Diaphragms and focus rings on all of the lenses were either very stiff or stuck. With a little coaxing, however, everything on the lenses started turning. The one bit of good news was that the cameras' rangefinding mechanisms worked smoothly and were in good calibration.

The lenses were all affected by fungus to some degree: just a little on the tele, a moderate amount on the two 50s, and quite extensively on the 35. The 35 was the only one that worried me, because the elements of this lens are quite small and none of their area was fungus-free. I am aware that you can have quite a bit of stuff inside a lens and still get nice images, and this fungus took the form of thin spiderwebby traces, but I still thought I'd better open up the lens and have a look. Unfortunately, it defeated my efforts to reach the elements, and the only thing I accomplished was to completely screw up the focus collimation. Recollimating a slow, wide angle lens for 35mm cameras is not easy because the lens casts such a small, dim, and superficially sharp image onto one's scotch tape groundglass, and it doesn't help when the tripod socket comes off with the film-loading back so you can't use a tripod while collimating; it took hours to get it right, although at least I took the opportunity to clean the helical and make it the smoothest focusing of the lenses. At this point I decided to try out the lens, together with the others, and see how much of a problem the fungus was.

First, though, I had to get the cameras working. One very nice feature of these cameras, which you can see in the photo below, is that the shutter mechanism is not sealed off from the film chamber like on modern cameras; a lot of it is directly accessible to small tools, and certainly easy to flush with Ronsonol, just by opening the back and squirting through the generous holes. I started by coaxing the Markfinder shutter through the cycle by pushing various parts of the shutter mechanism, causing a cascade of particulate crud to fall out of the camera. Then both cameras got a good Ronsonol flush, liberating a lot more crud. Within an hour, both were running smoothly and sounding pretty good.

I wasn't sure what to do about the rusty shutter blades. I found an old camera maintenance book which suggested lightly scribbling on the rusty areas with a normal graphite pencil, which purportedly not only removes the rust but lubricates the blades as well. I tried it on the Markfinder. It made the blades look a little better but didn't seem to change their performance. I decided just to leave the C44 blades alone.

Although the shutters were now sounding good, I know better than to assume that old shutters will continue to work the way they do just after a Ronsonol flush. Such a flush has two effects, one permanent (washing out the crud) and one temporary (lubing the works). You need to wait a few days for the stuff to evaporate and the lube effect to go away to find out if they're really working. In this case, the treatment actually did work, and after three or four days, the shutters stablized within half a stop of their nominal speeds; a little fast on the slow speeds, a little slow on the fast ones. The Markfinder shutter, which had completely seized, actually ended up slightly the better of the two.

After testing the shutters I did something that I am doing with more of my classic cameras; I made up decals to place over the existing shutter speed dials which denote the true shutter speeds achieved at each setting. In this case I laser printed the new markings onto a decal that I had colored with silver Sharpie, giving a black-on-silver effect that on casual inspection could pass for an original dial.

The Argus multi-finder that came with the C44, like many of its ilk, was fogged to the point of opacity. It took a while to figure out how to get into it, but ultimately I was able to remove and clean most of the elements. There are enough that I couldn't reach that the unit is still foggy, though now usable. For actual shooting I decided to use a Leitz Imarect.

With the gear apparently working, there was one further cosmetic issue to address. When I first removed the Markfinder from its case, the rear three body covering panels came off neatly with the case. I could have reattached them, but they were pretty nasty. I elected to recover the camera. This was my first recovering job and to get new leatherette, I headed to the local shopping mall and to the handbag section of a discount clothing store. There were many economical sources of pseudo-leather there in assorted fashion colors; many in black, but I wanted something different. After momentarily considering a restrained metallic silver leatherette, I selected a tasteful purple handbag for under $10 that yielded enough material to cover at least 4 or 5 cameras. (I should perhaps have taken a moment to consider whether I would ever want to do more than one camera in this color.) In recovering the camera I made a poor choice of adhesive and there are bumps in the covering here and there where it would not smooth out, but for a first effort it looks okay.

Okay, time to go shooting. I found both cameras enjoyable to handle. They don't feel as well made as a Leica, a Zeiss-Ikon, or even a Fed of the same vintage, but as least as nice as an Agfa Karat. There are websites out there that complain about the process of changing lenses on the C44, but it really is not difficult and I never had any problems getting them to connect properly. Certainly nothing compared to, for example, the terrifying process of mounting a Jupiter-12 on a Kiev.

I did have two minor issues with using the C44. One is, especially with stiff lenses, focusing using the wheel around the rangefinder window doesn't provide enough torque to move the lenses smoothly. I'm more comfortable focusing by grasping the large ring around the lens mount from below, but this is smooth and hard to grip firmly. I solved this by removing the rubber focusing grip from a junker lens of just the right diameter -- I think it was a Minolta Celtic 35/2.8 -- and fitting it around the lens mount ring. Now it's much easier to focus the camera in the traditional SLR or Leica manner. The other issue is that the C44's frame counter dial is located right next to the film wind knob, and the counter dial is easy to turn by mistake when advancing the film. So far I have screwed up the frame counter on every roll I've shot with the C44, and had to guess what frame I'm on when I realized what I'd done.

I tested the camera around New York and on a business trip to Lakeville, Massachusetts. I was impressed with the performance of the fungus-infected lenses, especially the 35mm. In the fourth shot below, when the neg is viewed through a loupe, every twig in the picture is well defined. I may still look for a replacement for this lens, but not with any urgency.

I'm not sure what role these two Arguses will play in my future shooting. It's always satisfying to bring cameras back from the dead, but these cameras are quirky and a bit cantankerous. On the other hand, the multiple lenses confer a good deal of versatility in a more compact package than an SLR setup, and the shutter speeds are consistent enough that I wouldn't hesitate to shoot slides. I can easily imagine situations like a walk through the woods on a fall day where it would be very pleasant to put this gear to use. So these elderly cameras may have quite a few years of image making ahead of them still.

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