FAB FOR THE TIMES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR STORY BEGAN as I was recently rifling through early images of the Beatles, and marveling at the material objects the Fab Four spent some of their First Real Money on, like, as with many of us, so-called “serious” cameras.
Over the history of camera design there have been two distinct Halls of Fame, one being a “who done it first” roster of innovators and the other being more of a “who wore it best” list of brands that had the greatest success and/or reputation connected with those breakthroughs. Many camera makers both introduce and adapt, and some brands, even if they come late to someone else’s refinement, capitalize on them better than even its originators. And so it goes.
One company that sparked true innovation at its peak but saw its tech eventually adapted by names that eventually eclipsed it was Pentax, now known as a mere phantom shell brand under Ricoh but once a verrrry key player in camera design. Founded in Tokyo in 1919, Pentax began as a maker of lenses for eyeglasses and soon thereafter adapted its polishing and coating techniques to make entry into the camera lens field. By the early 1960’s, the 35mm camera had become universal as an amateur tool, but many things remained to be done for it to appeal to aspiring pros as well. Two such needs, for true through-the-lens focusing and simplified light metering, was being met by a few forward-thinking makers, and, among these, Pentax was the first to create a fully practical SLR, years ahead of Canon, Nikon and other contenders.
And so enter the Pentax Spotmatic, sporting a film advance lever (faster and easier than most company’s advance knobs), completely in-body metering function, compatibility with all M42 screw-mount lenses (offering a lot of choices across competing manufacturers) and a sleek, lightweight body. And here is where we, if you will, Meet The Beatles. The Fab Four, on their first American tour in 1964, were still in the habit of doing nearly everything as a group, and so Paul, George and Ringo all purchased new Asahi Pentax Spotmatics as their “real” cameras as they made their way across the states. Ringo in particular seems to have taken to the snapping hobby especially well, taking advantage of the hours the band spent sequestered in hotel rooms or sheltering away from their manic public by taking tons of candids that have recently come to light in special exhibitions and in the 2017 book Photograph. Most of the previously unpublished images were shot on Ringo’s Pentax.
The Spotmatic and its progeny proved to be an affordable, easily-operated workhorse within the Pentax stable for years to come, even as the company itself saw its innovations co-opted and perfected by other brands. Today, like many once-mighty names that have been purchased, re-purchased or hollowed out by new parent companies, this once-major player in the design sweepstakes deserves a hallowed place among those who made the creation of images easier, faster, and more reliable. Analog or digital, all design rises or falls on how it removes obstacles between the envisioning and the execution of an idea, as the world asks but one thing of its most beloved cameras:
“Please please me..”.