Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Athol Shmith, Por­trait of Jan­ice Wakely, 1954 Pictures Col­lec­tion, Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia. On dis­play in Athol Shmith Fash­ion Pho­to­graphs, Trea­sures Gallery, Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia, Canberra, un­til July 17. From the time that Athol Shmith opened his pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio at the Paris end of Collins Street in Mel­bourne in 1939, he started tak­ing fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy and so­cial por­trai­ture to a whole new level.

In a ca­reer span­ning more than 60 years, his sub­jects in­cluded in­ter­na­tional stars vis­it­ing Mel­bourne such as El­iz­a­beth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Lau­rence Olivier. But even a prime min­is­ter graced the Collins Street stu­dio when Harold Holt and his wife Zara went there for their of­fi­cial por­trait.

Shmith’s pi­o­neer­ing ap­proach to pho­tograph­ing fash­ion in­cluded some of the most glam­orous mod­els of the day, such as Jan­ice Wakely, Maggie Tab­berer, and Pa­tri­cia Tuck­well (bet­ter known by her so­bri­quet, Bambi).

And while his ear­li­est work was pro­duced in the stu­dio, by the 1950s and 60s he was ex­per­i­ment­ing by pho­tograph­ing mod­els out­doors in real set­tings: the street, parks, the beach — which, he said, af­forded him greater free­dom.

Shmith’s in­no­va­tion is cer­tainly ev­i­dent in the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion Athol Shmith Fash­ion Pho­tog­ra­phy at the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia in Canberra. In 1979 Shmith gave the li­brary a sub­stan­tial col­lec­tion of his pho­to­graphs and neg­a­tives and 20 of those images are on dis­play, many for the first time. When I visit, it is be­fore the ex­hi­bi­tion’s open­ing and cu­ra­tor Su­san­nah Hel­man has splayed out the images on a table in the preser­va­tion lab, al­low­ing for a rare in­spec­tion at close quar­ters.

Hel­man says that not much de­tail is known about the cir­cum­stances in which these images were taken or where they were pub­lished. What is known, how­ever, is that Por­trait of Jan­ice Wakely fea­tures a Shmith model who was dubbed “the Girl of the Mo­ment”.

“I love this image; it feels very Doris Day,” says Hel­man. “I love the way her eyes are look­ing askance and the way she has her hands over

Gelatin sil­ver pho­to­graph; 50cm x 41.6cm

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