Wednesday, November 2, 2016

William Notman 1826 - 1891

Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1826, and moved to Montreal in the summer of 1856. An amateur photographer, he quickly established a flourishing professional photography studio on Bleury Street, a location close to Montreal’s central commercial district.


His first important commission was the documentation of the construction of the Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence River. The Bridge opened with great fanfare in 1860, attended by the Prince of Wales and Notman's camera. The gift to the Prince of a Maple Box containing Notman's photographs of the construction of the bridge and scenes of Canada East and Canada West so pleased Queen Victoria that, according to family tradition, she named him "Photographer to the Queen."

The first Canadian photographer with an international reputation, Notman's status and business grew over the next three decades. He established branches throughout Canada and the United States, including seasonal branches at Yale and Harvard universities to cater to the student trade. Notman was also an active member of the Montreal artistic community, opening his studio for exhibitions by local painters; the studio also provided training for aspiring photographers and painters. Notman was highly regarded by his colleagues for his innovative photography, and held patents for some of the techniques he developed to recreate winter within the studio walls. He won medals at exhibitions in Montreal, London, Paris, and Australia.

Photography during the mid-19th century was not the simple process it later became. The typical tourist generally did not carry a camera and much of the Notman studio's images were taken with the tourist's needs in mind. Visitors would look through Notman's picture books and chose views, to buy individually mounted or perhaps made up into an album, and have a portrait taken as well. Street scenes in the burgeoning cities of Canada, the magnificence of modern transportation by rail and steam, expansive landscapes and the natural wonders, were all in demand either as 8" x 10" print, or in the popular stereographic form, and were duly recorded by the many staff photographers working for the Notman studio.

At William Notman's death, his eldest son and partner, William McFarlane Notman, inherited the company. When he died of cancer in 1913, his younger brother Charles assumed responsibility. In 1935 Charles retired and sold the studio to the Associated Screen News, and in 1957 the Notman Collection was purchased by McGill University. The 200,000 negatives, 43 Index Books, 200 Picture Books and assorted memorabilia were transferred to the McCord Museum of Canadian History. Notman's collection can be viewed here.


His residence from 1876 until his death, Notman House in Montreal was added to the Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec historic registry on December 8, 1979.

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The Past Whispers
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