Athol Shmith: My father in the frame


By Michael Shmith

Somehow, he always seemed much older than he really was. That’s usually the case with a parent. You’re not supposed to believe your father had ever been your age, any more than you can summon the courage to imagine fathers and mothers playing mothers and fathers. Parents just didn’t do those things. So the thought that Athol Shmith would be turning 100 on August 19 is faintly ludicrous, but, alas, wholly credible.

I wish he were here to celebrate, but Athol made his exit from this world more than two decades ago, at the age of 77. Mind you, the ravages of emphysema had turned him into a stooped and fragile  old man who could have been a youthful-looking centenarian.

He was on permanent oxygen, but still lived at home, in his South Yarra flat, still making coffee, still putting the heater up to Sahara temperature (no cigarettes, by then), and still negotiating the treacherous narrowness of the spiral stairs, made even more challenging by the gently hissing trailing oxygen leads threaded through the railings like transparent snakes.

In that flat, after Athol’s death, in addition to the detritus that he could never bring himself to throw away – ancient shopping lists, piles of magazines, even a vaccination certificate for the long-deceased hound that Athol used to take for drives instead of walks, the intense temperature in the car matching that of the flat – was his life’s work.

What was there was an incomparable collection of around 500 prints that ranged from the early 1930s, when Athol was starting out from a small first-floor studio in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, to his Indian-summer achievements of the late 1980s: mostly portraits of those who interested him, or the very occasional wedding.

They were stored everywhere in his small and dark South Yarra cave that still bore the faint aromas of long-gone tobacco, stale black coffee and his particular brand of after-shave. The surviving prints reposed in and on top of cupboards, under furniture, in drawers, on shelves and on Athol’s desk. Why so precious? Mainly because they were all his work – the work he obviously loved and felt he should store – but more because they were the only definitive works left.

Athol never kept his negatives. This, being retold in the age of fathomless digital storage, seems incredible; but it was true. His studio at 125 Collins Street was not that large to contain the swelling archives of commercial work, portraiture and the multitude of weddings that kept Athol busy every Saturday.

So every now and then, out went boxes and boxes of negatives to make way for new ones which, in turn, yielded to fresher ones, and so on. So what was in that flat – that relatively small representation of, say, 60 years of ceaseless, varied and astonishingly brilliant output – was my father’s own tribute to the quite different minimal oeuvre of Johannes Vermeer. Quality, to be sure, but of such a rareness to make one long for the discovery of a cache of photographs hitherto unexplored.

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