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The legend of Athol Shmith lives on!

The winter edition of The National Portrait Gallery’s quarterly magazine Portrait, has a feature on the great Athol Shmith who was both a very fine fashion photographer as well as a great educator.

My portrait of Athol taken in March 1985 accompanies the six-page article in Portrait57 by Aimee Board.

It’s an excellent piece – you can read it here – or buy the magazine.

Portrait of Athol Smith by Michel Lawrence. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

I can’t remember now why I took the photograph, other than I think Bryan Gracey suggested I should! Gracey was on the staff of the Prahran College in the Photography School where Athol was Head of Department for around 10 years with other Australian photography giants Paul Cox and John Cato.

Bryan Gracey photographed by Michel Lawrence

It was an extraordinary period at the Art School and Athol brought decades-long experience of his life as Australia’s premier fashion photographer to a whole new generation of students.

Athol was part of Melbourne’s royalty for a long time so I just presumed his somewhat English reserved demeanour was how he was. He was our version of Norman Parkinson. Perhaps, his haughtiness was really just masking an innate shyness.

He was recognised in London as well as Melbourne. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and was also a member of the Royal Photographic Society in the days when a trip to London meant three months on a ship!

Rob Gale, now teaching at RMIT in Photography and Photographic Imaging said: “He was just so good. He was internationally regarded and as students we were all aware of what he had done.”

Athol’s work is definitely a product of its time and the equipment that he used. Not withstanding its period feel, it has a powerful sense of framing and engagement. Rob Gale says that his work was heavily influenced by music: ” He would draw parallels between the musical scale and the tonality of the photographs. If the music had dark tones then the photographs would be correspondingly heavy and dark.”

Aimee Board’s article covers his portraiture as well as his fashion which Aimee says contributed to the emergence of a new vision of Australian womanhood.

One of Athol’s students was Rod McNicol, the highly awarded portraitist was very close to Athol during his time there: “He was great fun, sometimes Chaplinesque…almost accident-prone while he was lecturing. He was a great mentor for me.”

Rod McNicol , the acclaimed portrait photographer was photographed by Michel Lawrence at McNicol’s small portrait studio in Fitzroy.

Athol was clearly very important to Rod’s development as a photographer: “I used to spend hours round at his place going through books … on Brassai, Kertesz, Penn, Avedon et al. He had bookshelves and bookshelves of books on photography. He had a Kona coffee machine and we spent hours drinking coffee and filling up ashtrays!” said Rod. “I learnt a lot from Athol. He was just such an enthusiast.”

Rob Imhoff, like Athol was a highly successful commercial photographer, but perhaps with more breadth to his practice.

Here is Athol having fun with two other – albeit much younger – photographers. Photo by Rennie Ellis: Athol Shmith, Robert Imhoff & Carol Jerrems. 1975
Brummell Gallery, Toorak Road, South Yarra
© Rennie Ellis Archive

Rob was a fashion photographer too,  but he also shot cars and packaged goods as well: “Athol became one of my early mentors and one thing he taught me was that you didn’t need a motor-drive camera – which was very trendy at the time: “Don’t press the button and HOPE you get the shot,” he’d say.

“Athol was adamant that you should be able to direct the performance and click the shutter at the appropriate time” says Rob. “I called him ‘The Conductor’ because he had that Hollywood-era power of the conductor directing everything. He knew what he wanted – and importantly- what he didn’t want!” said Rob.

During the 1980’s Athol was a regular visitor to Rob’s Lighthouse Studio and Gallery in Prahran: “What people forget now is that in those days Athol was a household name in Melbourne. If you wanted to be a photographer, you wanted to be like Athol.”

Athol was a great photographer and an intriguing character. He deserves to be remembered as one of Australia’s pioneering master photographers.

You should also read Michael Shmith’s account of his life with his father:



John Pinder – the godfather of Australian Comedy

John Pinder (at left) is pictured with his partner Roger Evans at the Last Laugh in 1979. Photo Michel Lawrence

John Pinder had a genius of talent spotting. He just knew when someone had IT! And there were lots of them with talent but nowhere to show off that talent. Until 1973 when he founded the Flying Trapeze in Brunswick St Melbourne, in what was then a less than salubrious part of Melbourne. But the FlyTrap, as it was affectionately known, was tiny with the stage the size of a pocket hankerchief. But it allowed John to show off his own talents for promoting unknown talent to an unsuspecting public.

The Last Laugh

Five years later he opened the Last Laugh in Smith St, one street down from Brunswick St and even less salubrious. An old dole office – and before that a bank – provided just what he needed.

Hawkes juggling

Jon Hawkes, who co-founded Circus Oz with John Pinder, struts his stuff.

I had just returned from London in 1978 when I was introduced to John and his great mate Jon Hawkes as they were launching Circus Oz. They needed someone to handle their advertising, their posters, their promotion and their talent photos. With my partner Bill Burrows we were just in the right place at the right time as John realized his dreams of turning a sleazy old dole office into a magical venue for a crazy bunch of performers, musicians, artists and waiters.

Bill and I spent five years helping John mould his ideas into ads, posters and all the other tools of the traditional communications industry into something he could sell to the Mums and Dads of the suburbs. Because, whilst John was tapping the extremes of quirky, bohemian, and often bizarre comedy, he was selling it to to Australian audiences everywhere with a hunger for something a little different – or maybe a whole lot different!

Sam and henry

John’s genius for talent spotting included the amazing Sam Angelico and Henry Maas as The Busby Berkleys

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Mitchell Fairclough’s pastiche of a country musician in the Whittle family

John was a big man whose brain was never turned off. He always had a new scheme and a new way of presenting the unpresentable.

The great talent spotter

His roll-call of talent was as diverse and as crazy as he was: Los Trios RingBarkus, The Whittle Family, Hokum W. Jeebs, and a raft of now well-known names like Richard Stubbs, Wendy Harmer, Jane Clifton, Mary-Anne FaheyIan McFadyenPeter Moon and Jane Turner to name a few! 

What a time it was! And part of the magic was John’s other genius for employing the craziest funniest waiters ever seen, anywhere.

Last Laugh waiters

The waiters at the Last Laugh had a talent all of their own. Brian Nankervis ( Rockwiz co-presenter) is third from right.

John died in Sydney from cancer on May 27, aged 70. What a loss.

Mick Conway

Mick Conway was already well-known when he starred in his own show at the Laugh.

Footnote: All photos taken for the Last laugh and LeJoke were later exhibited at the Lighthouse Gallery in November 1986 as Funny Business – Photographs by Michel Lawrence and were later acquired by the Melbourne Performing Arts Museum.

All of Us

All of us was a simple idea: showcase Australia’s incredibly diverse cultural makeup through portraits of all those Australians who were not born here.


The idea grew from the race riots which occurred at Sydney’s southern beachside suburb of Cronulla in late 2005.

Michel began photographing multicultural Australia in early 2006 with financial assistance from the Victorian Government with the support of the then Premier Steve Bracks and followed by ongoing support from his successor John Brumby.

The project garnered support from as number of individuals and foundations along with funding from the Australian Government.

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All of Us, published by Scribe Books. ( Now out of print)

The end result was a major exhibition in Melbourne’s Federation Square for Australia Day 2008, officially launched by Premier Brumby with a book launch at Australian Galleries some two weeks later.


The official launch of All of Us at federation Square, Melbourne Australia Day 2008.

The exhibition travelled to india in 2010.

All of Us became a complete package of communications materials- not least as a complete revamp of the VMC website which now houses the photographs from both the All of Us campaign as well as the more recent Indian Aussies.


Marketing material for the Victorian Multicultural Commission for Diversity Week.  


Cover of TimeOut magazine with featured article on All of Us.

Visit the VMC: http://www.multicultural.vic.gov.au/

All of Us

Michel Lawrence’s ‘All of Us’ project began as a statement about racism and an attempt to demonstrate what multiculturalism really meant to Australians.


Beginning with a large scale exhibition installed on the exterior walls of the CrossBar building in Melbourne’s Federation Square, All of Us had many iterations including a tour of India for the Foreign Affairs Department. The exhibition was launched by the Victorian Premier Mr John Brumby, for Australia Day 2008. The subsequent exhibitions were launched in India by Premier Brumby and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith.

The photographs first appeared in All of Us, a website used to promote the project and were then used in a huge array of materials from the 240 page All of Us book published by Scribe Books to magazines and newspapers around the country, to TV commercials and the Victorian Government’s Multicultural policy book- for which it also borrowed the title All of Us. The photographs also formed the basis of a large website we designed and built  for the Victorian Multicultural Commission.

Federation Square, Melbourne, VIC

The Fed Square Installation of All of Us.

View the 7.30 Report on All of Us: