Athol Shmith

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Athol Shmith

Louis Athol Shmith

19 August 1914
Melbourne, Australia
Died21 October 1990(1990-10-21) (aged 76)
Known forPhotography
  • Yvonne Pearl Slater
    (m. 1939; div. 1948)
  • (m. 1948; div. 1958)
  • Paule Grant Hay
    (m. 1967)
ChildrenMichael Shmith

Louis Athol Shmith AM (19 August 1914 – 21 October 1990) was an Australian studio portrait and fashion photographer and photography educator in his home city of Melbourne, Australia. He contributed to the promotion of international photography within Australia as much as to the fostering of Australian photography in the world scene.

Early life[edit]

Shmith was born in Melbourne in 1914 into a comfortable and cultured middle-class family, the youngest of three children of Harry Wolf Shmith, manufacturing chemist and accomplished pianist, and his wife Genetta, née Epstein, both born in England. Shmith played piano and vibraphone and considered music as a possible career. His father gave him a camera as a teenager and what was a hobby became a profession in his late teens when Shmith, who had an interest in theatre and played at charity performances, was asked to take the publicity photographs and stills for a show. He saw there was a career in his former hobby and, supported by his family, established a studio in St Kilda at 75A Fltzroy Street.[1] For the first five years he specialised in theatre work and society and wedding portraits through which he first made his reputation, but his professional break had come in the early 1930s when he gained the contract to take portraits of visiting celebrities for the newly formed Australian Broadcasting Commission.[2]

Collins Street studio[edit]

Shmith's work expanded to include a range of commercial advertising and illustration and appeared in local society magazines. He exhibited his works in photographic salons at home and abroad, gaining a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 1933. At the age of just 19 he was appointed Vice-Regal Photographer in Melbourne.[3] He long held the contract for stage and publicity photography for theatre producer J.C. Williamson Limited.[2] At a mere twenty-five years of age, in 1939 he became a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and Shmith moved his business to a studio in the Rue de la Paix building at 125 Collins Street,[4] run with the assistance of his brother Clive, and sister, Verna, who was his receptionist and who became an expert negative retoucher. The studio had originally been fitted out for Helena Rubenstein, and retained her elegant powder blue and deep pink fittings.[5]

Influenced in his early career by the soft Pictorialist style of turn-of-the-century art photographers, Shmith later embraced the clearer light, bolder compositions and design emphasis of art deco modernism which he admired in the fashion, product and portrait work of (Sir) Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen and Hollywood portraitist George Hurrell. By the late 1930s, he was seen as representing a new modern style of work.

War years[edit]

Lt Hamilton Lamb MLA photographed by Athol Shmith; a portrait typical of those he produced of service personnel during WW2

The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted the studio work Shmith had just commenced after his move into the city. When he attempted to enlist, he failed the medical examination, but he conducted photographic analyses for the army, including the interpretation of aerials of the American landing in Italy. His studio produced portrait photographs of hundreds of servicewomen and men, including those of many Americans on leave in Melbourne.[6] To meet demand, he employed numbers of other photographers including Hans Hasenpflug.

Shmith was represented internationally by the Pix agency which brought his work to the cover of LIFE magazine of 3 Aug 1942; his portrait of the son of General MacArthur who was in the country with his family at the time.[7] Inside were several of his pictures illustrating a story on the general's pretty wife and his son whiling away a Melbourne winter, while for a previous issue, 27 Jul 1942, Shmith had provided a photograph of MacArthur's air commander Lieutenant General George H. Brett playing cribbage (with 'U.S.A. cards' and matches, emphasises the caption) in a Melbourne restaurant with Brigadier General Ralph Boyce.[8]

The 'New Look'[edit]

After World War II Shmith embraced the "New Look"[9][10][11] and the spirit of post-war recovery in fashion illustration, becoming the most respected professional in the field in Australia.[12] The studio was increasingly associated with zestful, creative fashion photography.[11] Shmith, who prided himself on his skill in lighting, had learned much from the model of European modernism and the quirkiness of surrealism. He was also indebted to the top-lit and back-lit glowing 'Hollywood lighting' style of portraiture popularised by Californian photographer George Hurrell in the 1920s and 1930s. He described his portrait of actress Vivien Leigh in costume as lit by his 'inky dinky light', a top spotlight diffused by tracing paper. Shmith treated his female sitters and models as princesses.[13] In 1950 John Cato, the son of Jack Cato became co-director of Shmith's studio,[14] who recalled that Shmith;

...was a man of enormous enthusiasms. He was childlike because he always embraced new things - novelty was tremendously important to him. Even when he was in his 70s, he always wanted the latest camera or lens. His lighting techniques were theatrical. He used Hollywood spotlights when the generation before him used floodlights. He was theatrical - an urbane, debonair guy with this enormous magnetism but was enormously insecure underneath.[15]

From the 1960s Shmith responded to cultural shifts with a freeing-up of the style and setting of his fashion photographs.[16] He moved from the studio into everyday environments, like the street and beach.[17] Shmith acknowledged as his inspiration during this period the work of Richard Avedon.[16]

Contributions to photography in Australia[edit]

Athol Shmith's commercial career produced photographs that embodied a world of grace, glamour and allure and his dramatic portraits remain a record of significant personalities of his era.[18]

His technical expertise was also considerable; in 1945, he co-developed and patented (application 1947, granted 1950) a photo-finish racecourse camera invented by his friend, Melbourne scientist Bertram Alston Pearl; the 'Camera Graph' continuous-flow film system, with the innovation of a neon lamp in the finish-post, the oscillations of which record a time-register on the image.[19] Smith was responsible for devising a rapid film processing method that would cut the time to 65 seconds, enabling course officials to announce a result moments after the running of the race.[20] The system was first officially used on 6 July 1946 and adopted throughout Australia.

Throughout the 1960s Shmith remained energetic and dynamic in his development of fashion work, but by the close of the decade he took on roles in photographic heritage and education. Shmith was a member, and later, president, of the Institute of Victorian Photographers. In 1968 he was made an honorary life member of the Institute of Australian Photographers. In the same year he was instrumental in founding the photographic department at the National Gallery of Victoria, the first in Australia, and among the first at public galleries worldwide. Jennie Boddington was appointed as its first curator and she commissioned Shmith, as NGV council member (1972–75), to travel to Britain and France in 1973, to acquire international photographs for the collection. As a consequence, in 1975 he established a fruitful partnership between the gallery and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France which led to numbers of Australian photographers' work entering their collection.

Athol Shmith demonstrates lighting techniques to a second year photography class at Prahran College of Advanced Education in 1975.

Photographic educator[edit]

Business partners John Cato and Athol Shmith, 1955. Photographer unknown.

In 1971 he left his studio to partner John Cato to take on a new role as head of the Photography Department at Prahran College of Advanced Education.[21] He taught there[22] with Cato[23] and the film-maker Paul Cox. While teaching he produced and exhibited his 1973 psychedelic 'Anamorphic Series' now held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.[24] His support assisted the careers of students whom he closely mentored such as Sue Ford, Bill Henson, Carol Jerrems, Rod McNicol, Phil Quirk, Andrew Chapman and Christopher Koller. A brain tumour forced his retirement from the College in 1979, but after surgery and recovery he continued with a limited professional practice, including documentation of the 1980 opening of the High Court of Australia building. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia the following year.[25]


Shmith's work was collected by the major art museums commencing in the 1970s[26] and he had a retrospective in 1977 at the Australian Centre for Photography.[27] In 1989 the National Gallery of Victoria held an Athol Shmith survey. The major holdings of his work can be found in the National Gallery of Victoria[28] and the National Gallery of Australia. A small monograph on his work was published in 1980[29] and a more substantial one[30] was written by curator Isobel Crombie and published in association with his major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1989. Posthumously, the NGV showed his work in 1996 in their photography gallery.[31] A National Gallery of Australia Travelling Exhibition at the Monash Gallery of Art, Wheelers Hill, Victoria, 7 February–30 March 2003, and 5 other venues to March 2004, included a catalogue.[32] The Paris End: Photography, Fashion and Glamour at the NGV 3 June – 1 October included Shmith's photographs along with those of Jack Cato, Mina Moore, Ruth Hollick, Wolfgang Sievers, Helmut Newton and Henry Talbot and was accompanied by a substantial publication by NGV Curator of Photography Susan van Wyck[33]

Personal life[edit]

Athol Shmith was urbane, charming and witty and also madcap.[34] Less concerned with gravitas and the moral exemplar of 'greatness' of his many famous sitters and celebrated models, his pictures celebrated their elan, style and creative spirit. He was fascinated with his subjects rather than in awe of them, and in fact married three fashion models.

On 11 September 1939, Shmith married Yvonne Pearl Slater. The couple divorced in 1948.

From 1948 to 1958, he was married to fashion model 'Bambi'[35] (Patricia Tuckwell, sister of Barry Tuckwell and future wife of Lord Harewood, 1st cousin to Queen Elizabeth II).[36] They were married on 7 July 1948 in Melbourne. Their son Michael Shmith, a senior writer with The Age newspaper, now retired, was born on the first anniversary of their marriage, 7 July[37] 1949,[38] and his son Sam follows in his grandfather's footsteps as a photographer. The couple divorced in 1958.

Shmith's third wife was divorcée Paule Grant Hay (née Paulus), a former mannequin for Christian Dior in Paris. They married in 1967.[39][2]


  1. ^ "Popular Child Contest". The Herald. No. 18, 139. Victoria, Australia. 5 July 1935. p. 9. Retrieved 23 July 2021 – via National Library of Australia.
  2. ^ a b c ^ Shmith, Michael. Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for 'Shmith, Louis Athol (1914–1990)' accessed 30 January 2013
  3. ^ Cowen, Zelman Sir (1965), Sir John Latham and other papers, Oxford University Press, retrieved 30 January 2013
  4. ^ Shmith, Michael 'Paris, Melbourne', Chapter Two of Van Wyk, Susan; Shmith, Michael; Whitfield, Danielle; National Gallery of Victoria (2006), The Paris end : photography, fashion & glamour, National Gallery of Victoria, ISBN 978-0-7241-0271-6
  5. ^ Culture Victoria website accessed 30 January 2013
  6. ^ Aimee Board 'Progressive pictures', 25 July 2017, National Portrait Gallery
  7. ^ LIFE, 3 Aug, Vol. 13, No. 5, cover, pp. 66, 67, ISSN 0024-3019, Time Inc
  8. ^ LIFE, 27 Jul 1942, p. 27, ISSN 0024-3019, Time Inc
  9. ^ :"In 1948, an event occurred which was to have a huge impact on the Australian fashion scene: Myer imported a selection of Christian Dior's breathtaking 'New Look' garments. To introduce these beautiful gowns to an avid Australian audience, a group of French models was brought to Melbourne for the opening parades. Athol Shmith was appointed the official photographer"
    Culture Victoria website accessed 31 January 2013
  10. ^ Maynard, Margaret (1995) 'The Wishful Feeling About Curves': Fashion, Femininity, and the 'New Look' in Australia. Journal of Design History (1995) 8(1): 43–59 doi:10.1093/jdh/8.1.43
  11. ^ a b English, Bonnie; Pomazan, Liliana (6 April 2010), Australian fashion unstitched : the last 60 years, Cambridge University Press (published 2010), pp. 62–63, ISBN 978-0-521-75649-5
  12. ^ Maynard, Margaret (2001), Out of line : Australian women and style, UNSW Press (published 2000), ISBN 978-0-86840-515-5
  13. ^ "Rosalie Warne asks leading men: 'What most appeals to you in a woman?'". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 26 November 1953. p. 9. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
  14. ^ Newton, Gael (1980), Silver and grey : fifty years of Australian photography, 1900–1950, Angus & Robertson, ISBN 978-0-207-14109-6
  15. ^ Lancashire, Rebecca (10 September 1996). "Photography: Shmith retrospective at the NGV : The elegance of Mr Athol". The Age. p. 17.
  16. ^ a b Ennis, Helen; Hall, Susan; National Library of Australia (2004), Intersections : photography, history and the National Library of Australia, National Library of Australia, ISBN 978-0-642-10792-3
  17. ^ McNeil, Peter; Karaminas, Vicki; Cole, Cathy (2009), Fashion in fiction : text and clothing in literature, film and television (English ed.), Berg, ISBN 978-1-84788-359-9 page 63
  18. ^ Ennis, Helen; National Library of Australia; National Portrait Gallery (Australia) (1996), The reflecting eye : portraits of Australian visual artists, National Library of Australia, p. 5, ISBN 978-0-642-10673-5
  19. ^ Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences entry 'Photo finish camera, multi lens, metal alloy, Auto Ray Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1949'
  20. ^ Racing Queensland Limited (December 2012), Racing Queensland magazine, Magazine Publishing Company, pp. 18–21
  21. ^ Buckrich, Judith Raphael; Buckrich, J; Prahran Mechanics' Institute (2007), Design for living : a history of 'Prahran Tech', Prahran Mechanics' Institute Press, p. 164, ISBN 978-0-9756000-8-5
  22. ^ Pascoe, Joseph and Victorian College of the Arts. Creating: the Victorian College of the Arts. Palgrave Macmillan Australia, 2000. p. 9. ISBN 0-9585743-8-3, ISBN 978-0-9585743-8-9
  23. ^ see Cato, John. Athol Shmith (obituary) Art and Australia Vol 29 No 1 Spring 1991 p. 43
  24. ^
  25. ^ "Louis ATHOL-SHMITH". It's An Honour. Retrieved 5 December 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  26. ^ Warren, Lynne (Author/Editor). Encyclopedia of Twentieth-century Photography. CRC Press, 2006 ISBN 0-415-97665-0. p. 87
  27. ^ [Athol Shmith : Australian Art and Artists file], retrieved 30 January 2013
  28. ^ Shmith, Michael (2014) 'Athol Shmith: My father in the frame'. Melbourne, The Age 1 August 2014 Accessed 01.08.2014
  29. ^ Shmith, Athol; Stubbs, Dacre; Cato, John (1980), Athol Shmith, Richmond Hill Press, ISBN 978-0-908157-06-8
  30. ^ Isobel Crombie, Athol Shmith (authors). Athol Shmith, Photographer. Schwartz Publishing, 1989 ISBN 0-86753-422-2
  31. ^ Shmith, Athol; Van Wyk, Susan; National Gallery of Victoria (1996), Athol Shmith : fashion photography from the 1940s to the 1970s, National Gallery of Victoria, retrieved 31 January 2013
  32. ^ Karsh, Yousuf; Shmith, Athol; National Gallery of Australia; Monash Gallery of Art (2000), The good, the great & the gifted : camera portraits by Yousuf Karsh of Ottawa and Athol Shmith of Melbourne, National Gallery of Australia Travelling Exhibitions, retrieved 31 January 2013
  33. ^ Van Wyk, Susan; Shmith, Michael; Whitfield, Danielle; National Gallery of Victoria (2006), The Paris end : photography, fashion & glamour, National Gallery of Victoria, ISBN 978-0-7241-0271-6
  34. ^ Shmith, Michael (2006)'The last time I saw Paris: the Paris end of Collins Street, to Michael Shmith, meant heady days of photography, glamour and models' The Age 2 June 2006.
  35. ^ :"Bambi Shmith, wife of photographer Athol Shmith of Melbourne, derives her nickname from her big brown eyes. Before her marriage she was a violinist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but now finds time only for music as a hobby. She has done modelling work for seven years". "[No heading]". The Australian Women's Weekly. National Library of Australia. 28 November 1951. p. 24. Archived from the original on 11 March 2020. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
  36. ^ Kaplan, Robert M (2015), The prophet of psychiatry : in search of Reginald Ellery, Dr Robert M. Kaplan (published 2014), ISBN 978-0-9924579-1-4
  37. ^ Michael Shmith, "Mahler on my mind", The Age, 10 Jul 2010, A2, 19. Retrieved 4 February 2016
  38. ^ The Peerage: Michael Smith. Retrieved 4 February 2016
  39. ^ "Ex-Dior Model to marry photographer", The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, New South Wales, Sunday, 11 June 1967, Page 3.

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