Brassey Weddings Masthead

Ahead of his time: Photographer Athol Shmith

Emma Macdonald

He was Australia’s answer to Cecil Beaton.

Melbourne photographer Athol Shmith was a celebrated studio and portrait photographer who captured high fashion and glamour between the 1930s and 1980s.

From November 30, some of the most stunning examples of his work goes on show at the National Library of Australia to complement the library’s summer exhibition The Sell: Australian Advertising 1790s to 1990s.

Athol Shmith Fashion Photographs is a Collection-In-Focus display with curator Dr Susannah Helman describing Shmith (1914-1990) as an artist like few other fashion photographers of his time.

“His work was stunning, elegant, loud and often experimental,” she said. “He worked in fashion, theatre and advertising as well as on private commissions, weddings and portraits.

“Shmith reportedly directed every aspect of a shoot, whether he was at the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street in Melbourne, at friends’ houses or outdoors,” Dr Helman said.


In 1979, Shmith gave the National Library a large collection of his photographs and negatives –  including  gelatin silver photographs and colour prints. This remarkable collection traces the artist’s work from the 1950s through to the 1970s, with fashion photography featuring prominently. Although many of his images were published in magazines at the time, few of the National Library’s Shmith prints have been displayed before.

Shmith’s photographs capture a world of sartorial elegance from shirts to shift dresses, mini-skirts to wet-look boots – so the exhibition is a must-see for lovers of 1950s and 1960s fashion.

The show consists of 20 large black and white photographs and five contact sheets.


“Through them, it samples Shmith’s range and indeed, versatility, as well as the kinds of fashions and essays on beauty represented in the National Library’s collection,” said Dr Helman.

the essentials
What: Athol Shmith Fashion Photographs, a Collection-in-Focus
Where: the National Library of Australia, Parkes Way
When: November 30, 2016 to 17 July 2017
Cost: Free, for more information go to


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

Handmade May Leaderboard