The only Australian in the Karsh collection is a portrait of expatriate Sister Kenny, who developed treatment regimes for poliomyelitis. Karsh had most likely never heard of his contemporary in Melbourne, Louis Athol Shmith, who was something of a legendary character in his home city. Shmith was born in Melbourne in 1914 and came from a comfortable and cultured middle-class family; his father was a respected chemist and a fine pianist. Athol Shmith played the 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. For the first five years he specialised in theatre work and society and wedding portraits. In 1939 he moved to a studio in Collins Street (where all the best photographers were located), run with the assistance of his brother and sister. Shmith first made his reputation with society weddings and portraits, but his professional break came in the early 1930s when he gained the contract to take portraits of visiting celebrities for the newly formed Australian Broadcasting Commission. 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. He also held an appointment as Vice Regal Photographer in Melbourne and had the contract for work for theatre producer J.C. Williamson.
Influenced in his early career by the soft impressionistic style of turn-of-the-century art photographers, Shmith later embraced the clearer light, bolder compositions and design emphasis of modernism. By the late 1930s he was seen as representing a new modern style of work. After World War II Shmith embraced the New Look and the spirit of post-war recovery in fashion illustration, becoming the most respected professionalin the field in Australia. Throughout the 1960s Shmith remained energetic and dynamic in his development of fashion work. By the close of the decade Shmith began to take on roles in photographic heritage and education. In 1968 he helped to establish a photography department at the National Gallery of Victoria and in 1971 closed his business1 to take on a new role as head of the Photography Department at Prahran College of Advanced Education. Until ill health caused his retirement from the College in 1979, Shmith was a significant support to the rising generation of documentary and artist photographers such as Carol Jerrems and Bill Henson. Shmith’s work was largely based in his home city of Melbourne.
Athol Shmith’s photographs created a world of grace, glamour and allure. In later life Shmith undervalued his own commercial work but, under the new wave of interest in photography as art, Shmith’s work was collected by the major art museums in the 1970s and 1980s and he had a retrospective in 1977 at the Australian Centre for Photography. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1981. A small monograph on his work was published in 1980 and a more substantial one was written by curator Isobel Crombie and published in association with his major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1989.
Athol Shmith was, like Karsh, urbane, charming and witty but possibly more madcap. Shmith was less concerned with the gravitas and moral exemplar of ‘greatness’ than with the imparting of elan, style and creative spirit. He was fascinated with his subjects rather than in awe of them. Even though his subjects are most often in a soft and more sensuous focus than the robust men and women in Karsh’s world, they often seem closer to the viewer. 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. Where Karsh made even beautiful women look strong, Shmith treated his female sitters and models as princesses.
Athol Shmith did know about Yousuf Karsh but thought his photographs made the subjects look like ‘empty buildings’.2 Both Karsh and Shmith shared an equal passion for their medium of expression. The development of a more rarefied photographic art scene in museums and a new scepticism among the young towards authority figures from the 1960s on led to their styles of work being seen as outdated aesthetically and politically. While different in their mood and approach to the portraiture of the good, the great and the gifted, Karsh and Shmith excelled at their work, and their passion for photography was inextricably linked to the passport the medium gave them to wider and more exotic worlds. Both Karsh and Shmith have extensive holdings in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.
1 Operated since 1950 in association with John Cato, son of Melbourne photographer and photo-historian Jack Cato.
2 In an interview with Peter Adams in 1986, Shmith said: ‘In a sense, Karsh’s portraits are like empty buildings. He photographs the person’s face, not the person’s soul. His pictures remind me of Detroit car photos — probably a ridiculous analogy, but everything’s just a little too perfect and the end result is rather slick. You are forced to decide what is important about Karsh’s work: his collection of subjects, or his collection of pictures.’
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