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Shmith, Louis Athol (1914–1990)

by Michael Shmith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Louis Athol Shmith (1914-1990), photographer, was born on 19 August 1914 at St Kilda, Melbourne, youngest of three children of Harry Wolf Shmith, manufacturing chemist, and his wife Genetta, née Epstein, both born in England. Athol (as he was always known) was educated at Wesley College, Melbourne, where he played percussion in the school orchestra. Encouraged by his father, who was an adroit amateur pianist, Athol developed a love of music that was always to inform and enlighten his work. Many years later, his business partner John Cato (son of the photographer Jack Cato) described the young Athol’s ‘complex cross-interest of Mozart and inorganic chemistry, [Edward] Weston and Spinoza’. When Athol was 14, his father gave him his first camera, an Ansco roll-film. He took his two earliest surviving portraits in 1932: one of his father at the piano; the other of a dancer, Francis Ogilvie, seated on the lounge room floor of his home.

After leaving school, Shmith commenced work as a portrait photographer from a small studio in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, near the family home in Barkly Street. By 1934, at just 19, he had won various international competitions, was the official vice-regal photographer, and was a member of the Royal Photographic Society, London. He was later elected an associate (1937) and a fellow (1939) of the RPS. Melbourne’s Table Talk and Sydney’s The Home regularly reproduced his photographs during the 1930s.

In 1938 Shmith set up business in the Rue de la Paix building at 125 Collins Street, Melbourne, with his brother Clive as manager and his sister Verna as receptionist. Although Shmith’s poor physique rendered him ineligible for service, during World War II the army took over a section of his studio and he became a part-time photographic analyser. After the war the Athol Shmith Studio, with its famous, ever-changing showcase by the front door, became a local landmark.

Shmith’s subject matter ranged from weddings, debutantes’ balls and fashion, to various industrial, architectural and consumer-goods assignments that included everything from the latest cigarette to the fledgling FJ Holden car. He photographed visiting cultural figures, including Isaac Stern, Eugene Ormandy and (Sir) Eugene Goossens, and took publicity photographs for J. C. Williamson Ltd and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In 1948 Shmith photographed the Old Vic Theatre Company’s Australian tour; he took a memorable picture of a party at his parents’ home, with Sir Laurence (Baron) Olivier and Vivien Leigh sitting round the piano chatting with Chico Marx.

Shmith was not merely a society or commercial photographer, but an artist whose catalogue defied narrow description and whose work remained as ingenious as it was distinctive. As more than one critic has pointed out, he was an individualist, although he later recalled his early admiration for (Sir) Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen and George Hurrell. Shmith worked fast—his appointment book was invariably full—but he was always absolutely in control of the technical and aesthetic demands of an assignment. Cato later recalled that ‘The subject didn’t matter . . . each had its beauty, and the challenge to sculpt with light and capture in silver the essence of that beauty’. In addition to the elegance of a model or the sloping bonnet of a new car, Shmith’s pantheon of beauty came to include racehorses: in 1945, he co-developed, with his friend B. Alston Pearl, the ‘Camera Graph’ continuous-flow film system, more commonly known as ‘Photo-Finish’.

Shmith was a councillor and president of the Institute of Victorian Photographers and in 1968 was made an honorary life member of the Institute of Australian Photographers. In that year he helped to found the photographic department at the National Gallery of Victoria—a responsibility that led, in 1973, to his first major overseas trip, to Britain and France, to acquire photographs for the collection. He was a council member (1972-75) of the NGV and in 1975 established a partnership between the gallery and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

In 1971 Shmith had suddenly and surprisingly left commercial photography to become the senior lecturer-in-charge of the photography department at the Prahran College of Advanced Education. Until his retirement in 1979, after a protracted illness, he taught hundreds of the next generation of photographers—among them Carol Jerrems and Bill Henson. In 1973 he produced his extraordinary Anamorphic Images series—an intriguing stylistic departure.

After recovering from his illness, Shmith returned to professional photography on a limited basis. He covered the opening of the High Court of Australia building in Canberra by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980, and was appointed AM the following year. In 1989 the NGV held an Athol Shmith retrospective. The most substantial collections of Shmith’s work are in the NGV and the National Gallery of Australia. For practical storage reasons, he never kept his negatives; the photographs that survive are relatively few, but they provide a comprehensive example of his life and work.

Shmith was married and divorced three times. On 9 November 1939 in his parents’ home at St Kilda he married with Jewish rites Yvonne Pearl Slater; the marriage lasted only a few years and they divorced in 1948. On 7 July 1948 at the Hotel Australia, Melbourne, he married with Presbyterian forms the violinist and model Patricia Elizabeth Tuckwell, with whom he had a son, Michael. They divorced in 1958. In July 1967 Shmith married divorcée Paule Grant Hay, née Paulus, a former mannequin for Christian Dior in Paris, whom Shmith had first photographed when Paulus toured Australia in 1948. Survived by his son, Shmith died on 21 October 1990 at Malvern, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • I. McKenzie (ed), Contemporary Photographers, Australia, vol 2 (1980)
  • I. Crombie (ed), Athol Shmith (1989)
  • Art and Australia, vol 29, no 1, 1991, p 43
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Oct 1990, p 14
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Shmith, 'Shmith, Louis Athol (1914–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shmith-louis-athol-15802/text27001, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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