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