This Week in History


Say Cheese! A celebrity photographer is born

For the week of Monday March 3, 2014

O n March 8, 1826, photographer, businessman and innovator William Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland. Notman’s technique, stunning portraits and intricately designed composites made him Canada’s most celebrated 19th-century photographer.

William Notman
© McCord Museum / William Notman / 1869
Growing up, Notman studied art and worked for his family’s textile company until its bankruptcy in 1856 forced him to seek opportunity elsewhere. Later that year, he immigrated to Montréal with his wife and child, finding work as a store clerk. He left after only a few months to pursue his passion: photography. The first Notman Photographic Studio opened its doors in December 1856.

In 1858, Notman received a commission from the Grand Trunk Railway to capture the construction of the Victoria Bridge in Montréal. Upon its completion in 1860, the Prince of Wales came to Canada to inspect the bridge named after his mother. The Government of Canada gave the prince Notman’s bridge photographs, which pleased her Majesty so much that a portico over his studio door proclaimed “Photographer to the Queen!”

On the left is a staged photo and at right is the finished composite. While this one is quite simple, composites could have more than 300 figures.
© McCord Museum / William Notman / 1876

Notman’s business boomed during the 1860s. He won international photography competitions, published collections of his work, and expanded his practice by opening studios in large North American cities. His services were never more in demand as influential politicians and affluent families filled Notman studios. He also photographed everyday people and local events in Montréal, creating a comprehensive photographic record for that city during that period.

Cameras in Notman’s time required more time to produce an image, so to re-create a scene with people moving Notman invented composite photographs. He took dozens of photos of each person and then arranged them on a background to produce a single scene! The painstaking work that went into these composite photographs is what makes them Notman’s most celebrated works.

Notman died on November 25, 1891. Today his vast collection of photographs is held at the McCord Museum, in Montréal. William Notman was designated a National Historic Person for his exceptional contribution to the field of photography and the breadth of his work.

To learn more about William Notman please visit the McCord Museum’s virtual exhibit that is dedicated to his life and works. To learn about other great Canadian artists please read, Marc Aurèle Fortin: Capturing Nature’s Beauty, A Canadian Artist for Inspiration and Birthday of Artist Robert Harris in the This Week in History archives.

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