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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the middle-classes expanded in size and affluence, the mass circulation of portrait photographs of public figures and celebrities became an industry. Photographers with talent, technical aptitude, business sense and charming manners found they could become not only specially appointed Court photographers but also the darlings of High Society. Photography defined and created the very notion of celebrity by catering to the public fascination with images of the stars of the stage and later the cinema. Though separated across the globe and in their relative international fame, both Yousuf Karsh (1908–2002) of Ottawa and Athol Shmith (1914–1990) of Melbourne are 20th-century examples of portrait photographers who continued and excelled in the field of providing the public with glorified and glamourised portraits of public figures.

The National Gallery of Australia holds over 130 prints by Karsh and some 60 by Shmith. The Karsh works were acquired in 1973 by the National Gallery’s director at the time, James Mollison, and formed the whole of Karsh’s touring exhibition Men who make our world (although there were female sitters included). Shmith’s works were acquired through purchases from various exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s when a new era of interest in Australia’s photographic heritage was making an impact, as well as in the form of gifts from the artist.

For sources of inspiration, Karsh and Shmith could take heed of the conventions of painted portraiture going back centuries, as well as the achievements of earlier art photographers. As modern photographers, both men mixed these historical precedents with technical advances such as better lenses, shorter exposure times, panchromatic films (which were more sensitive to the spectrum), electric lighting and an array of special lighting tools for work both in and out of the studio. Throughout their lives, both Karsh and Shmith were drawn to the world of theatre and music, and their experience of stage lighting was critical to their success as portraitists of the good, the great and the gifted.

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