1930s Michigan Bakelite cameras document 2019 junkyards

The Argus A used the same kind of film as the original Leica camera, but cost a tiny fraction as much. There were some compromises in the image-quality department for the Ann Arbor camera versus the Wetzlar camera.

The parallels between automotive history and camera history turn out to be very easy to find; while Henry Ford made cars affordable for the masses, Kodak and Ansco were doing the same thing for cameras. German camera companies made technologically sophisticated machinery before the war, only to get beat on quality and price by Japanese upstarts building out of the rubble after the war.

When Leica created the amazing Leica 1 in the late 1920s, 35mm film preloaded into convenient, standardized metal cartridges (what came to be known as 135 film) started on its road to better than 75 years of photographic-world dominance, much as pushrod-based OHV engines took over the gasoline-engine world for many decades. Most of my junkyard film photography uses medium-format film, because 135 isn’t sufficiently old-fashioned, but I can’t ignore the two great camera families that came out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, during the 1930s: the Argus A and the Argus C3. I took the incredibly tough-but-unergonomic C3 to a Denver yard last month, and now it’s the turn of its low-priced A cousin.

On the left, the original Argus A, circa 1939. On the right, the flash-capable Argus FA, circa 1950.

While the Argus C3 was a sophisticated piece of photographic hardware, with rangefinder focusing and a wide range of shutter speeds, the Argus A was a very simple Bakelite camera, made to resemble the Leica 1 but selling for just $10 in 1936 (about $180 today, which was a bargain for such a capable camera back then). During the grimmest part of the Depression, Americans who wanted a pocket-sized, easy-to-use camera that took better shots than, say, the Brownie No. 2 weren’t going to spring for the upscale Leica.

The Argus A really was the Model A (all right, Model B) Ford of its time, being a Michigan product that offered great value for the price. The Argus A can be purchased for cheap today, so I picked up two: an original late-1930s version and an FA, which came out in 1950. I shot a roll of Kodak T-Max 100 in the A and two in the FA, visiting wrecking yards in Colorado and California. The gallery above contains the A shots, while the one below has the FA photos.

A 1949 Detroit car photographed with a 1950 Ann Arbor camera. This ’49 Olds, complete with historically significant overhead-valve V8 engine, will feature in a future Junkyard Treasure post.

I had to disassemble and clean the shutter and lens mechanisms on both cameras (this must be done with most of the sub-$10 old cameras I buy at thrift stores or on eBay), and a few problems revealed themselves on these test rolls. I may have installed one of the lens elements backwards in the A, leading to images with unfocused edges. The shots on the FA show some light leaks that I wasn’t able to catch. It’s just like reviving a ’36 Ford that sat in the barn for 60 years— you never know what will work right and what won’t!

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