5 frames of cheap cheap cheap in the Far East. An Argus C3, caffenol and Kentmere Pan 100.

“Wow.” the merchant let out a subtle gasp as I pulled out an Argus C3 to test another camera’s shutter in Namdaemun camera market, Seoul. I am not sure an Argus is used to hearing that in a shop. Ironically, I make a similar sound when I abuse the C3’s intended purpose and then develop 36 double exposures.

It’s boom or bust for this method, which fits my typical subjects: things lost in time. Korea, like much of the developed world, is experiencing a population decline of sorts. All over, once thriving businesses are now shuttered and smaller cities struggle.

A favorite of mine to image, the port city Gunsan displays this well. Closed restaurants and businesses emphasize an under utilized harbor. The fish market seems a shadow of its old self. Over a century, the once bustling imperial port transitioned to a quiet rural city hosting an allied air battalion.

That the Seoul shop owner had not seen Argus C3 in person before was near unthinkable being from Washtenaw county, Michigan. It makes sense, though, given the manufacturer’s timeline. Korea was likely not flush with 1950s American cameras. Though I’d be surprised if Argus cameras did not feature images in textbooks on Korea.

This particular Argus was my grandfather’s camera. Being of that vintage and family provenance, it can feel weird to carry it around Korea. This camera shot some damn good years in the US while Korea was struggling.

My grandparents were very “with it,” and I watched a lot of this camera’s slides converted to DVDs in the 2000s. The colors always had a certain pop. That Cintar lens on slide film is magic. It’s unfortunate an easy adaptation has not been figured out for the digicam masses. I tend to shoot it black and white because it is cheap and, well, I don’t fancy going to Seoul when I finish a roll. So it goes, life moves on.

Flash forward a few decades and I’m teaching abroad. I’ve gone back and forth between this camera or that medium. These days I tend to stick to, “to each their own,” and, by that, I mean each camera has its own purpose. The Argus C3 is a double exposure beast with a prominent place in my bag.

The shots I take with the Argus contrast a lot with the family snapshots from fifty years ago. As for many film cameras adopted in the 21st century, this one has gone from documentary to art camera. The bridge between those two methods can seem an odd one to cross for one of the world’s most common cameras.

I use caffenol to simply develop Ilford Kentmere iso 100 film. This ensures that mistakes are not costly. It also means that when I’m overly excited, I can see exposures quickly.

The price of photography is exaggerated in South Korea. Add thirty percent or more to costs and tossing Kentmere in the Argus makes good sense. Still, the staining as well as the heavy grain from the developing and mediocre scanning methods don’t diminish the photos too much. While editing requires some pushing, I still feel good about the images and the camera.

The Argus has a lot of benefits. When shooting normally, it is quite sharp. It’s no surprise that it was such a commercial success in its day. Not to mention that this “cheap” camera managed to dent the sidewalk when I dropped it last winter. It must be near indestructible.

When it was handed down to me, I was not sure how or if I would use it. It was likely given to me to sell or put on a shelf. Often I wonder what folks would say if my images were spliced between the old family photos. Maybe they would fall into place, though. Maybe it’s just another adventure for a camera that went up to the Arctic Circle in the 60s.

My images from the Argus tend to fall somewhere between happy accidents and intentional art. When you shoot 36 straight double exposures on a C3, it’s one after another: main shot, then double exposure intention or vice versa. Rewinding and taking good notes becomes unnecessary. How wonderful that is.

Often there are duds. Yet, between the duds there are the special shots that work. If you’re going to shoot a C3, do try some double exposures. All I can say is make sure to get your damn finger out of the way of the weird shutter lever and accept you’re going to screw it up sometimes.

I do the social media thing on Instagram @missingthedarkroom and now I keep a blog here. Thanks for checking out my work.

Update: After another visit, I noticed the shop owner had sourced an Argus C3 and now one sits in the glass case behind the counter. Just like that, another Ann Arbor camera is ready for a new adventure.

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4 thoughts on “5 frames of cheap cheap cheap in the Far East. An Argus C3, caffenol and Kentmere Pan 100.”

  1. What a great story. I love Namdaemun—I recently had the pleasure of spending a couple of days there with a shopping list and a laden wallet…and a blog post you’ll see in a few weeks!

    Double exposures are fickle beasts but so much fun. Based on what you’ve shared, you’ve got a phenomenal eye for these things.

    Could you say a little more how you use your C3 to test other cameras’ shutters though? I’m intrigued and was expecting to hear more about that technique in the story.

  2. Murray Leshner

    I had 3 different vintages of C3. Gave 2 away & kept the C3 Matchmatic (Harry Potter cameo).

    The RF is easy to focus with, if it’s clean.

    I didn’t think of trying the lens on a mirrorless camera, but have too many other Triplets & Tessars extracted from rough-shape cameras.

    The lens is removable – so the C3 was an early interchangeable lens camera, and mirrorless, too! ;@). If careful, you could put the lens pack with the gears aligned just as you removed it. Otherwise, re-setting focus is simple.

    I might try it just to see how it goes. I have hand-held lenses (freelensing?) more frequently than adapted securely…and deleted a lot of images, too.

  3. Looks like a fun experiment.
    These little cameras are both cheap and ubiquitous on the used market, and I’ve often wondered what kind of pictures they can make.
    Along with the double exposures, and the combination of an off the beaten path film and developer probably isn’t the best way to satisfy my curiosity.
    I’d love to see some shots with fewer variables if you decide to pick up the camera again!

  4. David Dutchison

    I love it. Duane Michals used the Argus “Brick” to create his most important work and guess what, he used double/triple/quadruple exposures a lot. Your camera may be possessed.

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