Happy Birthday Dr H C Nugget Coombs (1906-1997)



Some years ago, my husband Brian and I collaborated on a series of articles for the Canberra Times; he wrote the article and I provided the photograph. The articles were about both the photo session, and the person being photographed. Nugget Coombs was, quite simply, one of the most influential Australians of the twentieth century

The sitter. Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs was born on 24 February 1906, at Kalamunda near Perth Western Australia, and was educated at Perth Modern School, the University of  WA and the London School of Economics.

From 1934 to 1942 Dr Coombs worked as an economist, first at the Commonwealth Bank, and then the Commonwealth Treasury. He was appointed Director of Rationing in 1942, and Director General in the Department of Post War Construction in 1943. Between 1949 and 1976,  Dr Coombs  was Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia and Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU). During the same period he served as Chairman of;  the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust,  the Australian Council for the Arts, the Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs, and the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration. In

1972 he was Australian of the Year. He also received the Order of Australia, but later resigned as a matter of principle. Nugget Coombs was advisor to six Prime Ministers, and was respected on both sides of parliament. He was, quite simply, one of the most influential Australians of the twentieth century. As Phillip Adams wrote, “All in all, pretty impressive. Yet it doesn’t begin to explain why the pint sized Nugget looms so large in our landscape, why his five-foot-nothing casts such a long shadow. This can only be explained by his idealism, his decency, his tenacity, his wisdom.”

From 1976-1996  he was Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the ANU, with a second base at the North Australian Research Unit in Darwin, where he spent most winters in his later years. Nugget Coombs was devoted to Aboriginal Australia, and was one of it’s most authoritative, influential and respected advocates. His dozens of publications on Aboriginal issues include seven books.


The Sitting.  "I am afraid that Dr Coombs will not be able to give you much time or attention, and he does not like flash !"  Ettie Oakman, Dr Coombs secretary, said to me on my arrival.

As I looked around the small cluttered office with notes and papers pinned to the walls, I thought to myself; "here we go again, no time, no light and no background".  In other words, a perfectly normal situation when photographing famous people!

The flash was no problem as I prefer to use natural light anyway. I saw that there was just enough light coming through the solitary window for me to manage. The white painted brick walls, together with the white papers on the desk would reflect the window light onto the sitter, softening the shadows. The notes on the wall were part of the scene, and if I  shot with a narrow depth of  field,  they would be out of focus, and would not be too much of a distraction.

My sitter arrived, a small man in sneakers with white hair and white beard. I could see that he was preoccupied with other matters, but he was polite and  asked me a few questions about my photography. When I mentioned that Judith Wright and Manning Clark were  also  part of my collection, he  relaxed and gave me his undivided attention. I made no attempt to formally pose him, but took my photographs as the conversation continued. "The eyes have it" with Nugget Coombs I thought, and I concentrated on this,  and on the expression. I only did about a dozen shots, feeling confident that I had the right one on film. There is no point exhausting your subject unnecessarily, because the expression deteriorates after too much clicking of the button!




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2 comments on “Happy Birthday Nugget Coombs”

  1. susan vogel Reply

    I just love these candid shots. Is candid the correct word for how natural they seem, their depiction of the nature of a person, unscripted?
    Well regardless of my naivety of
    “ photographers appreciation “ speak I love it. Thankyou

    • gallahad Reply

      Dear Susan, my sincere apologies for the delay in replying to you. We are rebuilding the website, and it has caused a few hickups.
      I think UNSCRIPTED is the right word, and it is exactly what I want to achieve with my portraits. It’s not always possible, but with a person like Dr. HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs it comes naturally.
      I have photographed people from all walks of life and I enjoy every minute of it.

      Kind Regards
      Heide Smith

      PS I could send you a ‘dropbox’ link to a fun-lecture I gave on ‘Points of portrait-photography’, if you are interested.

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