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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: