Review by Magdalena Milosz
Notman, A Visionary Photographer
November 4, 2016 – March 26, 2017
McCord Museum, Montreal, Canada
Before Canada could be, it had to be imagined. Its outlines were drawn and filled with visions to be disseminated to the world—from a colony becoming newly independent within the empire came views of a wilderness conquered, booming metropolises, and the people who made up what could become a nation. One prolific maker of these images, William Notman (1826-91), was the subject of a recent retrospective at the McCord Museum in Montreal. Based on the institution’s own archives, which contain over 600,000 photographs by Notman and his studio, Notman, A Visionary Photographer captured a time of rapid change as Canada entered Confederation and beyond. Focused on 300 photographs and objects, the exhibition made inventive use of light, sound, and moving images in a series of darkened rooms to animate Notman’s life and work.
Escaping accusations of illegal trading in Scotland, Notman immigrated to Montreal in 1856 to start a new life. Almost immediately, he turned his passion for the relatively new practice of photography into a thriving business, which eventually involved two of his sons, many collaborators, and dozens of employees. By 1872, Notman’s photographic “empire” had expanded to twenty-six studios, nineteen of which were in the United States. These studios dealt chiefly in portraiture, creating innovative (or more traditional) portraits for clients, as well as sending photographers as part of expeditions to explore unsurveyed parts of the country. The McCord exhibition, however, began at a smaller scale, showing Notman as a family man whose portraits of loved ones emanate “an evident tenderness” and whose work often focused on the city he called home for the second half of his life. A video montage of photographs by Notman and others cleverly introduced visitors to Montreal as it was in the late nineteenth century: a multicultural city growing rapidly in both population and infrastructure, the ideal time and place to launch a career in photography.
Notman’s first major commission was to photograph the completion of the Victoria Bridge (1858-59), the first to span the St. Lawrence and a key link in the Grand Trunk Railway. Notman was an innovator in his field, using large glass plates to take these photographs as well as experimenting with stereography, which combines two images to create the illusion of depth. As an adept marketer of his own services, he adopted the tagline “Photographer to the Queen” after his photographs were presented to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who officially inaugurated the Victoria Bridge in 1860. Notman’s groundbreaking photographic documentation of this infrastructural achievement demonstrates the interplay of technologies in the colonization of new lands, a theme that would continue to manifest in his work over the next several decades.
A significant proportion of Notman’s work was in portraiture, and he captured a surprisingly diverse set of cultures, classes, genders and professions in the subjects who flocked to his Bleury Street studio. In this sense, it was unfortunate that six of the exhibition’s seven larger-than-life, backlit reproductions all represented powerful, Euro-Canadian men—and yet, these portraits also reflected Notman’s own quick ascent to a position of influence within the Anglophone cultural and political elite. Flanked by a wall of smaller portraits of people in the arts, education, religion, politics, business, and, perhaps most interestingly, the trades, the large reproductions seemed somewhat overinflated in scale. In his portraits of ordinary people, Notman ennobled their day-to-day occupations through portrayals like The Plasterer (1862), in which Joseph Craig, dressed in his work uniform, carries the tools of his trade (likely before or after a day’s work renovating Notman’s studio). In another portrait from 1868, Jean-Baptiste Rice, a Mohawk from Kahnawà:ke, poses confidently with a ship’s wheel and a coil of rope, representing his occupation as a river pilot and his reputation as the first to navigate a steamboat over the Lachine Rapids.
Notman’s view of photography as an art was ahead of its time, evident in the formal and imaginative aspects of both his portraits and landscapes. Starting in 1866, he gave his studio clients a pamphlet entitled Photography: Things You Ought to Know, which proclaimed that “to consider Photography a mere mechanical art, is a great mistake.” Indeed, the exhibition suggested that “the Notman studio was a theatre of appearances” and that to have one’s portrait taken could be a profoundly imaginative act. Notably, the photographer’s iconic images of people in flurries of snow, skating on ice, or as part of hunting parties were created entirely in the studio, with elaborate, painted sets and the use of technical innovations such as a magnesium flash to emulate a campfire or polished metal serving as ice. An entire section of the exhibition was devoted to these techniques, which included an inventive use of collage and painting.
The final section of the exhibition, aptly titled “Creating an Imaginative Geography,” presented the wide geographic reach of the expeditions coming out of Notman’s studio—extending to all ten provinces—and their role in fashioning an image of Canada that was propagated through media like postcards, international fairs, newspapers, plates, playing cards and photographically illustrated books targeted to Canadians and tourists alike. The resulting landscape photographs depict the pristine and awe-inspiring environments most often associated with Canada’s hinterland, but also the incursions on those landscapes already taking place in the second half of the nineteenth century: dottings of settler houses, trees turned into logs turned into lumber, and the incessant thrust of rail over plains, mountains and rivers.
Whether photographing people or places, Notman captured Canada as its conflicted self-image was taking shape. His urban clients clearly identified with the depiction of the country as an unspoiled (and “unoccupied”) wilderness, often choosing to situate themselves in an outdoor landscape recreated within the confines of the photographer’s studio. Yet even before these “interior exteriors” were fashioned as a backdrop for their own portraits, this particular vision of Canada likely came to them mediated through representations like Notman’s expeditionary photographs. Likewise, a tension exists between Notman’s images of Indigenous people such as Sitting Bull, whom he photographed in Montreal in 1885—both on his own and with Buffalo Bill—and those of Euro-Canadians appropriating aspects of Indigenous cultures in a bid to situate themselves as belonging to this place. For this contemporary viewer, questions of agency, land rights, and culture arose again and again, yet neither Notman’s work nor the exhibition framing it provided any easy answers. Like the work of the painter Paul Kane before him, Notman’s oeuvre has value as a catalogue of sorts, in addition to elucidating the fictions that Canadians tell about themselves.
Notman, A Visionary Photographer offered a captivating view into the life and work of one of the first Canadian photographers to show Canada to the world. Using a thematic arrangement of photographs as well as equipment and other objects, the exhibition demonstrated the ways in which William Notman and his many collaborators under the Wm. Notman & Son label helped to construct the image of Canada as we know it today. Rather than passively documenting the people and places of his new country, Notman actively participated in rendering a view of Canada as modern, multicultural, and metropolitan at the same time as it was ancient and wild. In prompting visitors to think critically about how modern national narratives are constructed, the exhibition was successful in presenting Notman’s vast legacy from a new perspective.
(1) Chaudière Falls, Ottawa, ON, reversed glass plate negative, 1870 (William Notman) © McCord Museum
(2) Installation view of Notman, A Visionary Photographer, McCord Museum, Montreal, 2016 (photo by Marilyn Aitken)
(3) Ice shove, Commissaires Street, Montreal, reversed glass plate negative, about 1884 (Wm Notman & Son) © McCord Museum
(4) Loop showing four tracks on the Canadian Pacific Railway, B.C., reversed glass plate negative, 1889 (Wm Notman & Son/William McFarlane Notman) © McCord Museum
(5) Jean-Baptiste Rice, albumen print, 1868 (William Notman) © McCord Museum
(6) Anna and Louisa Spence, reversed glass plate negative, 1883 (Wm Notman & Son) © McCord Museum
(7) A.H. Buxton, Montreal, reversed glass plate negative, 1887 (Wm. Notman & Son) © McCord Museum
(8) Trapping the lynx, Montreal, 1866, silver salts on glass – wet collodion process, 1866 (William Notman) © McCord Museum
(9) Timber coves at Quebec City, Que., reversed glass plate negative, 1872 (William Notman) © McCord Museum
Magdalena Milosz is a writer, artist, and PhD student in the School of Architecture at McGill University, where her research focuses on the historical uses of architecture in Canada’s attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples. Her work is supported by a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship and a Schulich Graduate Fellowship from McGill. She holds degrees in architecture as well as a Graduate Diploma in Cognitive Science from the University of Waterloo. Her writing on art and architecture has previously appeared in print and online. https://magdalenamilosz.com/