Spirit of ’76

The world is apparently getting warmer, but the hottest summer in my lifetime was surely the summer of 1976, a blisteringly warm period in a so-called troubled year. The prime minister Harold Wilson resigned seemingly out of the blue. Britain was also bailed out by the International Monetary Fund after the pound fell from over $2 to $1.6 by September (in 2016, it is way below $1.6). I was not ten years old, and that summer seemed to go on for the cliched forever.


Ricoh 500 GX

The lawns turned brown and cracks appeared in the earth wide enough to wedge the toe of your trainers in. I spent many an afternoon in the park with my brother Paul, walking our grandad’s cairn terrier Archie. This was no ordinary municipal park. This was the Bishop’s Park in Bishop Auckland, 800 acres of lightly visited former hunting ground with a deer house, ford, bridges and many other delights. Looking back, how lucky we were to have this place to roam around in freely.

Now that’s 40 years ago, so marvel I do at the recently arrived Ricoh 500GX, which looks like it has just left the production line in Taiwan and been zipped forward 4 decades by Doctor Emmett Brown in his DeLorean to my local post office depot. I can only assume this camera was bought, and then seldom used, before being stuffed away at the back of a sock drawer and eventually forgotten about.

The Ricoh 500GX to me looks half rangefinder, half cigarette advertisement; evoking the black, silver and red livery of Marlboro Mclaren’s formula 1 racing car in which James Hunt won the 1976 drivers’ championship. This was back in the day when smoking, drinking and womanising seemed easy bedfellows with professional sport. How the world has changed. How utterly dull in comparison our sporting heroes are now. Bjorn Borg looked just as much a weed toking guitar man as a professional tennis player; so cool and human when set against some of today’s racket wielding automatons.

Misogyny has no place in the world, but we now have sugary drink purveyors and mass produced fast food makers sponsoring major sporting events instead of cigarette manufacturers. We’ve swapped the sponsored spectre of lung cancer for diabetes and heart disease. Elite sportsmen and sportswomen now have to be inscrutable under the constant media glare (or is it surveillance?), even when trying to let their hair down (and embarrassing themselves) for fear of upsetting hair trigger sensitivities and the PC police (see Louis Smith). I am not sure if all this constitutes progress.

But I am getting off track. I don’t want this article to be all about some middle aged grumpy bastard’s rant about the world today. I want to celebrate a brilliant little camera, well suited to street photography.

So, apart from looking like a miniature fag advertisement the Ricoh 500GX is a small fixed-lens rangefinder camera with full manual control and shutter priority options, as well as a multiple exposure feature which I am looking forward to trying. You have to work within the limitations of a 40mm Color Rikenon lens (a very good lens), a top shutter speed of 1/500th second, and a small and awkward aperture ring tucked in too close to the camera body and obstructed by the self timer lever. The fiddly aperture ring encouraged me to stick to shutter priority, and operating in this mode there are no frustrations.

Shutter priority is engaged by turning the aperture ring to a green letter ‘A’ and leaving it there. The camera is now in charge of choosing the correct aperture based on the film speed (set by a dial at the front of the lens), the CdS metered exposure, and the shutter speed set by the photographer on the shutter speed dial around the lens barrel. The viewfinder is bright enough with a distinctive diamond shaped rangefinder patch and a very good cream and red aperture scale running up the right hand side of the screen with a match needle indicating the camera’s chosen aperture. Unfortunately, shutter speed is not displayed, but there are only seven clicks from 1/500th- 1/8th to memorise.

Out and about in Redcar and Middlesbrough, I discovered a small and discreet camera. The shutter is whisper quiet, and I found the shutter lock a reassuring and handy feature. I am delighted with the camera’s output. Get one while they are reasonably priced, as I think we have a future cult classic on our hands.

No, 1976 wasn’t all bad. Read a bit of history. Draw your own conclusions. Compare it to 2016. As Harold Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan said, “a lie can go halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on”.

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