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For the 2003–2004 travelling exhibition The Good, the Great and the Gifted: Camera Portraits by Yousuf Karsh of Ottawa and Athol Shmith of Melbourne, Australian photographer, filmmaker and writer Peter Adams has contributed an opinion piece drawn from his personal interviews with Athol Shmith in 1986 and Yousuf Karsh in 1992. These interviews and the portraits he made of these two elder statesmen form part of Adams’ extraordinary project Living Legends. In 1983 Adams travelled across the globe interviewing and photographing over 500 of the ‘world’s great photographers of people’. In the lead up to The Good, the Great and the Gifted, separate longer articles by Adams on his Karsh and Shmith interviews were published in the Spring and Summer 2002 issues of the magazine Better Photography.

Peter Adams clearly takes sides personally, professionally and aesthetically with the work and personalities of his two subjects. In doing so, Adams reveals both something of the way photographers work and what they think of their peers. He also raises a number of sharp questions about just what a portrait photograph by a photographer with a distinctive and dominant style can actually achieve in representing another person.

This collaboration between the National Gallery of Australia and a prominent member of the photographic industry in Australia forms part of a five-year program undertaken by the National Gallery’s Senior Curator of Photography, Gael Newton. Over the past year Newton and Australian Institute of Professional Photography council member Doug Spowart have written a series of articles on the National Gallery’s collection, encouraging greater awareness among Australia’s professional photographers of the photographic works held in the national collection.

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The National Gallery began collecting photographic art in the early 1970s and the acquisition policy covers both international and Australian photographers from the 1850s — the medium’s first decade — to the present.

Questions for discussion for student groups and exhibition visitors about the essay by Peter Adams and The Good, the Great and the Gifted travelling exhibition have been prepared by the National Gallery.

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