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. We had been at war with Iceland over fish. Britain was also bailed out by the International Monetary Fund after the pound fell from over $2 to $1.6 by September (in 2017, it is way below $1.6). I was not ten years old, and that summer seemed to go on for the cliched forever.
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, him messing around with an OM1, both of us dodging swarming bees and walking our grandad’s cairn terrier Archie.
Now that’s over 40 years ago, so marvel I do at my Ricoh 500GX, complete with pristine case and plastic lens cap, 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 light seals slowly and silently turning into that all-too-familiar black sticky goo that Bostik should market.
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?). 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 chunky, boxy, yet 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 f/2.8 mm Color Rikenon 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 on the Ricoh 500GX 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 with ASA numbers in green and DIN in red), 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 yet small 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.
Metering power is provided by a 303 silver oxide battery, a cell with a slightly higher voltage than the original PX675. Be sure though to turn the shutter speed dial to the ‘B’ setting when not in use, or the camera will greedily eat away at the battery power with relentless metering while apparently dormant. There is no ‘Off’ switch as such.
Out and about in Redcar and Middlesbrough, with new light seals, I discovered the Ricoh 500 GX to be an enjoyable camera to use. The shutter is quiet enough for the street, and I found the shutter lock a reassuring and handy feature. I am delighted with the camera’s output. However, the combination of the small rangefinder patch and 50 year old eyes made focusing a bit on the slow side. For the black and white Middlesbrough shots I preset focus and exposure and just pointed and pressed.
Get yourself a Rioch 500GX, if you can find one. They seem as scarce as water in 1976.
No, 1976 wasn’t all bad. Read a bit of history. Draw your own conclusions. Compare it to 2017. As Harold Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan said, “a lie can go halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on”.