Bill Smit was born in 1927 at Rocklea, Brisbane and grew up there. He is a photographer and photography judge with an international reputation. He was a founding member of Queensland Camera Group. This is his story:
“During the War years I did my Scholarship and Junior before I became an apprentice Fitter and Turner. I worked for Evans Deakin at the South Brisbane dry dock, repairing naval boats and after the War finished, I then went back to their Rocklea workshop and worked on Queensland Railways steam locomotives.
“My parents both lived in Amsterdam. My father worked in a big department store. My mother didn’t work. But they lived in a house in Amsterdam on the top storey of a two-storey house which was all right except that when when you had to put the cat out, you lowered it down the window in a basket and it’d go for a walk and then when you pulled the basket up, you only hoped it wasn’t the ginger tom from next door and you got your cat back. So then they decided to come out to Australia and he came out in 1912. My mother came out in 1914 and they got married here and I had, then my brother was born in 1918 and I was born in 1927.
“My mother, she was an amazing person really. She did go out and do some work, working in somebody’s home, cleaning and that sort of stuff and my father, of course had the language problem because there was no services for immigrants in those days and so he worked on roads, with pick and shovel and then he eventually became the gardener for the Darra Cement Works and that was a good job and he stayed there until he retired.
“We lived near Archerfield Aerodrome, which was a revelation because the start of aviation was just coming and we saw all sorts of different planes. And of course, then the War came and the Americans took it over so we saw every type of plane that was there. But in the early days you used to have, what they called “Air Pageants” where three motored Stinson, like the one that crashed at O’Reilly’s. They used to race against little single engine planes on the handicap basis. They used to race over our house and they also used to have a truck driving across the aerodrome and a light planes’d fly over and trying to drop bags of flour on to it. Or they’d put hydrogen balloons up, small balloons and they’d try and break them with their propellers so I became very interested in aviation through that.
“The interesting thing about it was that in 1934, MacRobertson Miller, a chocolate manufacturer in Melbourne sponsored an air race from England to Australia and it was won by an English pilot. Two pilots, Scott and Campbell Black and the second plane was the KLM DC2 Airliner. It was one of their first airliners. It landed at Archerfield and my father and I went over there to have a look at it and of course speak to the pilots in Dutch. He ended up going with the pilots to 4QG radio, which in those days stood for Queensland Government and sort of acted as an interpreter and it was only many many years later that a relation came out and I found out that the uniforms they were wearing were made by my grandfather. He worked for a company that would supply clothes for the Royal Family in those days. But he made those uniforms and we didn’t know that at the time.
“My brother worked for Evans Deakin which was a protected industry. And he was called up. He was in the Reserve Army before the War and he was a member of the Light Horse, but no horses. But they had those uniforms and any rate he was a called up and a week before he was due to sign up for the army, the company stepped in and said – you can’t go because you’re in a protected industry. So he didn’t go. I went to high school at the end of George Street which was called the Industrial High School near the Parliament House. In the Botanical Gardens, they dug trenches for us to hop into if there was an air raid. So, the War didn’t affect us that much, except that the street we lived in, all the American aircraft that were brought over by ship, without their wings and they would be towed past our place and it was a gravel road and, so wasn’t very pleasant that part of it, but still as far as the World War was concerned, you know we didn’t have it that hard.
“After the War I decided I’d develop a film out of a Box Brownie camera and I did that. Then Kodachrome film came out, the slides and the slide, of course, being colour was very popular and the only problem was that you couldn’t always get it. I used to go to Kodak in Queen Street every Saturday morning looking for film. Have you got any Kodachrome? If you’re lucky there’d be one because they were supplying the World and it was in short supply. So I bought a Kodak Retina camera which is a nice little camera and that started me off. Then I advanced to a slightly better camera and I met a fellow at the Yeronga Corso and we were photographing motor boat racing and he said – I’m a member of the Brisbane Camera Group. Why don’t you come along? So that was the start of that. And we used to meet in the room above the St James Theatre which is now the Myer Centre and being a theatre, it had a very high ceiling which meant a very long staircase up to the room, which wasn’t that bad but come Christmas time, I had to help carry a keg of beer up that stairs for the party. That’s where I met all the people and off we went.
“Being in engineering I decided I’d build an enlarger and because I had at that particular time a camera, Speed Graphic they call it. That was a large sheet film camera and so you needed a big enlarger. I certainly couldn’t afford to buy one so I decided to make it with the help of Evans Deakin. But they didn’t know about that.
“The Brisbane Camera Group was meeting at the Royal Geographical Society rooms in Ann Street and we had this competition, a prints competition and for some reason there were two judges. One was Garth Grant Thompson and the other was Ralph Gregory. They were both associates of the Royal Photographic Society and, but they couldn’t agree on this particular night. So after that, some of the print workers got together apparently and demanded that we have a Special General Meeting to discuss this business and so we had that General Meeting and their motion was defeated so they went. Then later on we learnt that they started talking about creating a new club. Now the print workers created the Brisbane Salon Circle which only had about half a dozen members but you could only join by invitation. The focus of all this area was the camera shop in the Brisbane Arcade which was run by Tom Scruse and they would meet there at lunchtime and talk and talk and then somebody decided that we’d form a colour slide club and that was the start of the Queensland Camera Group, sorry the Colour Group which later became the Camera Group. And so they were sort of independent of the BCG. I mean we were all friendly to each other and so that was the start of the Colour Group. However, when you’ve got club members leaving and forming another club, well you could imagine there was a bit of ill feeling there but we all sort of smiled at each other through clenched teeth.
“In the late 1950s the main feature really was the colour slides. People would go out on their holidays and take pictures and then wanted to show them to somebody. So, companies like QANTAS they had a camera club. The Railway Institute I remember going there judging once. And the Postal Institute. All of them they were sort of social things and it was looking at each other’s slides that brought it on and then they would advance a little further and have competitions and all that sort of thing. And then of
course, came TV and the novelty sort of wore off.
few years after I joined the club I would have started judging. I suppose I’ve been judging for 50 years now
and when I started judging, the reason why I was chosen as a judge was because
I entered in international competitions with slides. Then you get your entries back and if you got
an award or something, well that was announced at the club. And so they would remember that you must know
something about it to win awards. So
they’d started inviting you as a judge and I became very busy as a judge in
Queensland Camera Group and the Brisbane Camera Group. Then I started judging all over the place and
the furthest I’ve judged is in Sydney at the Sydney International which was one
of the top internationals. They flew me
down a couple of times. The pictorial
section was 1700 slides to judge and because we worked in those days under the
rules of the Photographic Society of America, you had to see every slide first
before you could judge them. So on the
Friday night I got there and they showed me 1700 slides and then the next day
we were judging in the unopened Sydney Opera House and we judged the 1700. I mean looking through them the night before,
you only remembered the last slide, virtually.
But anyway, we got an idea of the standard. So that was why my name was chosen, purely
because of my record in exhibiting.
“There were 480 photography clubs in Australia. That’s a list that was in a book and there was about 40 I think in Queensland. So they wanted judges other than their club members, you see. That’s where the Photographic Society of Queensland came in. They used to do tape judging and we used to receive slides with a cassette tape and the judge would judge it, put down all the comments and send it back. So this gave the country people somebody else’s opinion. So that was quite a thing at the time.
“There was one person from that time who was a good photographer. He was from Toowoomba, Graham Burstow. He was a friend from way way back and he was very much in to photographing people doing their own thing so to speak and he became well known for that. I used to judge the Toowoomba annual and he always won. Sometimes he would not enter to give the others a chance. But he was a great fellow.
“The Queensland Colour Group had a badge that was sort of looked like three cubes in a sort of an irregular arrangement and there were three different colours and that badge changed later on but it was a badge they printed for members. The Queensland Colour Group had these “at home” club meetings and they would invite people from other clubs to come. Somebody’d put on a slide show and another time somebody would put on a movie and we had one chap who worked at the Conservatorium of Music so he put on a piano recital for us. So it was a get together. It was a good thing because it got people mixing from different clubs.
“At one period of my judging career I was a member of the Brisbane Camera Group and I was a member of the Queensland Camera Group and I had to judge there. So I thought well, if I resign from the clubs and become sort of independent it would be a bit better from the point of view of judging. If you were a judge you were invited to the Christmas party. That was your payment. And I remember we had one down at a reception place at New Farm and there were some young girls in the club and they were would put on a song or two, singing Edelweiss or something like that. So it was a bit different to what it is today.
“There was one memorable night when I gave a lecture on differential focusing, that is to have a photo so there’s things in focus and others not in focus. Frank O’Shea was a member of the club whose job was to look after the projection and in the middle of my lecture on differential focusing up come a slide of a picture of a differential on a car. So behind the scenes, they’d been working on it, trying to put me off my beat. Well good laugh so we all enjoyed it.
“The early days of AVs were pretty primitive by today’s standard. We had two projectors and you would project one slide and then the next projector was ready so you’d switch projectors. So you sort of had slides with a break in between. And then somebody invented a, or they pinched an idea from the movie theatres where you had two flaps on a spindle so that when one flap covered one projector, the other was uncovered and you just went and it was more of a sort of a fader. It was much better. And of course, eventually it all became electronic. This is all before the digital age. There were people with little tape recorders playing the music while they’re showing and you know, it was very difficult. But I remember one night we had 17 entries which was quite good from one club. You can’t get that now.
“Then came the four-track recorder, which means you could record on four individual tracks. So you would put on two tracks the music in stereo and the third track, you could have a signal for when the slides to change and that’s what you’d hear on the earphones and you’d know to do the change exactly at the right time. So that was a big advancement that way. That was used for years.
“The club had organised, using its members, to create a Queensland International Slide Competition and they would show the exhibition in the basement of the City hall. And one year the organiser was Dr Garth May who was a very prominent nature photographer. He resigned so they had to find another President, they called him, because the International whilst it was part of the club, was run separately. It had its own financial setup and it’s really nothing to do with the club other than it was part of the auxiliary. I got a phone call one night from Eric Dury who was very prominent in the exhibition who said – We’re looking for a new President, would you be the President. And as I mentioned before, I’d resigned from the club so I said – No I can’t do that because I’m not a member. And he said – Well, that’s no worry. We’ve just made you a Life Member. So it was very hard to say no. So then I took it on. I ran it for two years. One of the problems with the International is the cost because you start off by printing an entry form, then you’ve got to send that all over the world. Then when the entries come, you have to do the Exhibition, the judging. Then you have to send to the entrants a report card and then after the Exhibition’s over, you return these entries with a catalogue. So there’s a big expense in printing and postage. They were getting in to financial trouble so the final one we decided would be an invitation only. And you know we had names of all the photographers all over the world and we’d send them an invitation, just a letter saying – do you want to be in the invitation? So we got a big response for that but somehow or other I don’t know how, we ended up as being part of the Warana week and, which meant that they offered us the main hall of the City hall at no cost. We could do what we liked. The only thing we couldn’t do was man the ticket box. That had to be done by Council staff because of some union thing. So we organised this and with a hall the size of City Hall, we had to have a big screen. So we went out and purchased two painter sheets, joined them together, put a lot of eyelets around the outside and we put aluminium scaffolding on the stage and stretched the screen on it. Then we had to have a projector. Most projectors were round about three and five hundred watt projectors in those days and we borrowed a projector which was 500 watts, which is a terribly hot projector, I’ll tell you. And as part of our idea of publicising it, lucky that we had a woman whose husband was the Editor of the “Sunday Mail”. So we got some images reproduced in the “Sunday Mail” supplement.
“Then we decided to have the largest flash shot in Queensland. This happened because Eric Dury who worked for the University and had dealings with Philips and they said we’ve got hundreds of flash bulbs, what they call “peanut bulbs”, small bulbs, can you do anything with them? And he said – Yes. So they gave us 600 of these bulbs. The reason why they were giving them away was that the electronic flash was just coming in to being. So we mounted all these bulbs on boards about 3 foot x a foot, drilled holes stuck them in and wired them all up and we arranged those on the stage and we had contacted a Hungarian group and they were happy to stand on the stage in their national costume. And then we told people to bring their cameras and tripods and they set up their cameras and we would have a count-down as to when you had to open your shutter for the flash to go off and that flash had to be fired by a car battery, taken out of Eric’s car to have enough energy to fire all those bulbs. Anyway, it went off all right and that was the end of it. And of course, we ended up with some money in the account and a couple of years later they rang me up and said – there’s money in this account. This was the committee of the club and said – do you think we could use that to buy a new projector, a carousel projector. I said it was nothing to do with me, but it sounds a good idea so they did it.
“Kodak in those days used to have a lecture service. See Kodak was very oriented to amateurs in those days and they had lectures on tapes and you could borrow them to show at the club and we approached them about making duplicates of some of the winning entries so they said – if, we’ll copy 75 of them provided that we’re allowed to keep a copy for ourselves for our lecture service. So that was good. So we’d send down the 75 and they’d duplicate them. See the thing about duplicating slides was that they had a duplicating film which was a much lower contrast film because if you copied on ordinary film, it’d be a much higher contrast. So by using duplicating film, which is made for that purpose, you got a better image.
“Kodak used to put out the “Australian Photo Review” and it used to run competitions and one of the awards was the APR medal. And it also used to have stories about the clubs. Secretaries would send in reports about their club. This was before the time of the Queensland Colour Group, but the Brisbane Camera Group used to put entries in there for reports from the club and later on when it closed down, and the Australian Photographic Society was formed, they donated the die that made that medal to the Australian Photographic Society to use as they wished. So they used that as a service medal.
“I started a darkroom service. I was looking after my father so it gave me something to do. So I built a decent dark room under the house. When I bought the house, it had to have room for a decent darkroom. So I built that darkroom and then I started a black and white printing service for professionals because colour prints had come in and a lot of the labs switched to colour and they wouldn’t do black and white. In fact, Kodak, if you wanted them to print, which they used to do in those days, they would send it down to Adelaide. So I had this service and the Brisbane City Council have photographers who follow the Mayor around and they take the pictures, develop them and then store them. They don’t print them but they’re there for the record and then somebody started picking up pictures they wanted to print and I got that job. And when I looked at the negatives they were so thin, lacking in detail, that to print them, it was hard to make a decent print. You had to print on the hardest grade of paper, Grade 5. You had different grades of paper for different contrast and, I rang up the boss of the City Council photographic department who was originally a member of the Brisbane Salon Circle and told him how shocking they were and he had no answer but we found out later that when they developed the film they develop them in deep tanks where they suspend the film into the developer which is agitated by nitrogen bubbles and then when it’s developed, they fix it and then hang it up to dry. And as you use the developer you had to put in a replenisher to bring the developer up to proper strength and unfortunately, one photographer thought the other photographer was putting in the replenisher and the other way round and consequently no replenisher was put in at all. And as a result, we had these thin negatives.
“I’ll explain the dark room process for developing black and white photographs. First of all you’ve got to develop the film so you’ve got to have a developing tank, which was a spiral tank which you had to feed the film into on to this reel and then put it in the tank and put the lid on to keep the light out. Now you have to load this. You can imagine a roll of 35mm which is probably nearly a metre long. You have to feed that in to this reel in the dark. Once you’ve loaded it, well then you would have to use developer, that’s to develop the image, then you wash the developer out, and then you put in a fixer and that stops any developing and it makes the image or the negative so light won’t affect it. Then you take it out and let it dry. Then after you’ve done that, well then you use an enlarger, you put the negative in the enlarger carrier. And by raising the head up and down on this enlarger, that determines the size of the image on the board and once you’ve done that, and focused it then you put a sheet of paper in there, photographic paper, you don’t have to be in the dark but you’ve got to have orange lights on because it’s not sensitive to red and then you’ve exposed it for so many seconds. You then put it in the tray of developer, give it a 30 seconds or more until it stops developing and then you take it out and put it in the next tray which is water and sometimes you can put a chemical called acetic acid in there. That stops developing. I gave up using acetic acid because it’s not the best for your health in a closed darkroom and then you put it in a fixer. Well, one of the fixers was called “hypo” but then there was others called rapid fixers and you leave it in there for a while and then you take it out then you’ve got to wash it for half an hour to get the chemicals out of the paper. Because if you don’t get the chemicals out of the paper, years later you’ll get stains. And then you hang it up to dry. So it takes a while.
“And you know you’re dealing sometimes from little, we’re talking in inches in those days, 4 x 5 inches up to 20 x 16 inches. And you know, it’s a fair size piece of paper but I had, I made a big tray in the darkroom out of marine ply and made a tray about six inches deep and I had the trays on top of that but then once I fixed them I could just slip them under into the water which was running water, for half an hour to wash them. Then of course, when you’re dealing with enlarging a little bit of dust on the negative on the carrier becomes much larger on the thing. So it didn’t matter how careful you were, after you’ve printed every print, then you’ve got to retouch it, get rid of those so there was a special little water colours that were available in little blocks and a very fine brush and you’d, I used to use a Loupe on my head to magnify it and so the idea was when you retouch it you couldn’t see where it was. So it’s all time-consuming.
“I used to make, what you call a “proof sheet” where you laid out, it was a special gadget. You laid the films in there, you put a sheet of paper in, expose it to light, develop it and then you’d have a, a black and white representation of each negative so you could pick it and see what was good and you had to do that particularly with wedding photography so that people could pick out what picture they liked to have enlarged.
“I never did wedding photography but I processed it because I saw too many “accidents”. You know, whole wedding taken out of focus, through no fault of the photographer, but unbeknownst to him, the vibration in the car had unwound an inner lens so that it wasn’t in focus. So we had to tell them when they came back from their honeymoon that, sorry we’ve got no pictures. So we had to dress them up and stand them outside the church again and all this. And of course, there’s no wedding cake left. So that put me right off.
“Queensland Colour Group was solely colour slides and then somebody got the idea, they’d like to do colour prints, or black and white prints. Black and white was very popular in those days and so they thought, well if we’re going to do black and white prints, that name doesn’t quite suit. So they wanted to retain the initials so they switched them to “camera group” from colour. That’s their advancing with the times.
“I remember seeing at a Brisbane Camera Group meeting I was at and a chap there had a digital camera and of course digital cameras in those days were thousands of dollars. And he was showing us that, and I thought at the time – that’s an interesting novelty. Then of course it creeps and crept. And then of course I thought, well if I’m gonna judge digital pictures, I’ve got to know what I’m doing, so I had to force myself to get in to the digital age, printing and all that sort of thing to know the ins and outs and you know a lot of talk about sharpness and all that sort of stuff. You’ve gotta know the reason why things are done so that forced me in to learn a lot more and of course now I enjoy it incredibly. But it took a while to catch on, so to speak, because of the cost. Particularly, John Daniels I remember, he was very keen on it and he promoted it and I always remember that in 1999 the Australian Photographic Society had a convention at Nambour. John was on the committee and as people were coming in and he would photograph them as they registered, then they’d go and sit in the hall and next thing, he’s projecting these images on a screen. And that was the first convention really that digital was used. But being able to produce it instantly made quite an impact.”
Bill has a number of awards and groups to which he belongs, which he explains here:
“Well the FIAP, that’s the Federation International de L’Art Photographique is an organisation based in Europe and they were sort of setting standards for competition and we got to hear of it and I remember I was President of PSQ in those days and one of the members of one of the clubs wanted to investigate this and he found that you could use the FIAP in Australia but only one body could look after it and that was the Brisbane Camera Group. And then the Australian Photographic Society came along and of course we handed it to them because they’re the main body. And the “E” in FIAP is for “excellence”. AFIP was for artists, artistes, and that is, there’s a lot of other ones now, ES, that’s excellent service. A lot of other ones now that I’m not too familiar with.
“In 2012 it was at the 50th anniversary of the Australian Photographic Society Annual Dinner in Canberra and one of the members of PSQ was down there and he called me on stage and handed me a certificate saying – you’re a Fellow. So that was very surprising.
“The Commonwealth Medal, that’s given to three classes. One is the professional photographer, the other is the scientific photographer and the other is the amateur photographer. So it only comes round for the amateurs once every three years. I was a foundation member of the Australian Photographic Society and I did a lot of conventions in Queensland and later on they made me a Life Member. But that’s the basis behind the Commonwealth medal. That’s been given to some scientists and that sort of thing who have contributed to the photographic progress.
“I was a foundation member of the Australian Photographic Society. Some people down south decided they’d like to have a society. So they contacted all the State bodies like PSQ in Queensland and I had to go down as a representative of PSQ on two occasions, once to Sydney, once to Melbourne to help create the Society. And what we actually created was the Photographic Federation, it was called and its task was to create the Society, which is registered in Canberra. It was the State bodies that were behind it and they eventually formed it with so many from each state body, supposedly to add to a hundred but we ended up with a couple more. But that was the start of it all and, you know I’ve been to about 30 conventions all round Australia and I really enjoyed those because you’re meeting people you know you only see once a year and it’s all part of a holiday, so very enjoyable photographically.
“The “Australian Photography” magazine, which has been going for years now ran a six-monthly competition. And you entered each month and I entered and I used to do a thing called “bar relief” which is an experimental thing where you took a slide and you made a contact negative of it in black and white and then you’d sandwich the two, slightly out of register, so that you get a slight white line around things. I did quite well with those but I never won a monthly competition but I accumulated enough points to win and the prize was a flight with Pan Am to Hawaii, a week at the Hilton Hawaiian Village so that was really a big thing.”
Bill has done a lot of caravan trips around Australia and continues to enjoy driving around the country and taking many photos.
“I’ve done close to 200,000 kilometres. I’ve only been looking at maps recently to realise just how many places I’ve been to, going around Australia. I’ve been across the Nullarbor five times and up and down the centre and you’d go to every place you hadn’t been to so to speak. And that was a great thing and it’s an economical way of travelling, plus you meet a lot of people and photographically, of course, it was marvellous. In those early days of course you had slides and with the Kodachrome slides which was the best film you could buy. Agfa made film but that used to deteriorate badly but Kodachrome. I’ve still got Kodachromes that are as good as ever. But you had to send that film down to Melbourne. When you bought the film you paid for the processing there and then and it was supplied with a little packet that you could put the film in, put your address on it and send it and then a week later you’d get it back. Except for one year when the young Queen and Prince Philip came to Australia and they did most of the states. Queensland was the last state and the town just lit up. The William Jolly Bridge was blood red and every building in Queen Street, had all bright lights everywhere. There were photographers there with tripods everywhere. So I sent the film away and I got it back six weeks later. There was such a demand you see. But with it, was a box of mounts. They said – sorry we can’t possibly mount them, you’ll have to do it yourself. So they sent the packet of mounts. But other than that you usually had to wait a week, which seems a long time in this digital age.
“I’ve got to say that, choosing photography has been a great idea because, you know, when I think of the enjoyment I’ve had of going to all these places and making record and also the people you meet. You’ve got friends all over Australia and even locally, you know, I mean it’s just marvellous and another thing that gave me some satisfaction was in ‘77. I was invited to New Zealand to be a speaker at the New Zealand Camera or Photographic Societies Annual Convention. I had to give three lectures, and I got there at 1 o’clock at night and there was a woman there in a Jaguar waiting for me. She took me over to the motel on the other side of the airport and so we made a holiday of it and then we gave the lectures which went pretty good. I lectured one on “the great circle” and it was all about going round Australia and the national state flowers and all that sort of thing. All those pictures became useful because when Expo happened in Brisbane in ’88 there was a company putting out a book for sale to the overseas people on Australia and somehow they got my name and they came out and saw the slides so they took all lots of slides with them and eventually published them in the book. And I had to approach them about getting the slides back. I got them back but obviously, they’d been standing on a viewing board and they were just covered in dust. It was terrible. But anyway, they reproduced all right but that was one of the features of having travelled for the photos that you could make a bit of money.
“As you get older, things become heavier so consequently I didn’t want to have a camera with auxiliary lenses and all that sort of thing. So now I’ve bought what you call a “bridge camera”. It’s a Nikon P900 and it’s not light, but it’s all you need to carry because it has a focal length of 24mm wide angle to 2000mm telephoto. That’s a long telephoto and you can also do close-up with it to within about a centimetre and it’s all built in to it. I’ve made prints with it to show the people how the quality is, you know, a scene of a farmyard with a dray in it and then you zoom out to 2000 and you just show a bit of it with cobwebs on. You know, that’s all I want to do and I see it on the club on 10-foot screen. I have no quibbles about the quality, so it just suits me fine and keeps me in photography. And it only cost me $599.00 for all that. It’s got some limitations and as I say, it does what I want to do.”
Bill Smit was interviewed in February 2017.