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Composite Photographs, 19th and early 20th Century

By Stanley Triggs

In the mid-19th century, in the days of long exposure times owing to slow emulsion speeds, there were always several people in each photograph of a large group who moved during the exposure or had an unpleasant expression or were partially hidden behind the person in front. The intention of photographers engaging in composite photographs was to alleviate these problems and at the same time offer the customers photographs more true to life.

Why produce composites?

The technical limitations of photography also made it impossible to photograph a group of three or four hundred people dressed in snowshoe costumes on Mount Royal; to supply, transport and arrange posing stands for each one; and expect to create a dynamic composition with everybody in sharp focus and looking their best. But in the controlled conditions of the studio, where each person was photographed individually with a posing stand at the head to prevent movement, a clear portrait with a pleasing expression and a good pose was guaranteed. Photographing even a small group, such as a family, indoors in a single picture was impossible. Most families wanted their own living-room or parlour as a setting for the family group, but the exposure to record the room would have been up to an hour long at least. Therefore a photograph of the room only was taken, enlarged, and the figures added later.

This paste-up technique had other advantages as well. It was a convenient way of including the whole family in the picture even if one or two members were not present at the time. A letter would be sent off to a brother or sister overseas, for instance, asking for a portrait of a certain size and pose. On arrival, it would be cut out and pasted into the group. Even death couldn't prevent the grandparents from being represented in the composite. A suitable head-and-shoulders portrait was copied and pasted into the composite. Nothing so macabre as including the deceased person in the group was contemplated, but rather placing the image on the wall behind the group with a frame painted around it. This was a procedure long practised by European painters.

The Victorian fascination with photographs stemmed from the ability of the camera to record accurately in minute detail the subject at which it was pointed, a fascination reflected in the style photographers chose to use and the sort of photographs the public chose to buy. They wanted their photographs to show "accuracy," "perfect definition," "naturalness" and "a good likeness." The addition of colour to composites and to studio portraits in general was another manifestation of the public's desire for realism.

Composites from Notman Photographic Studio

The earliest known Notman composite, made in 1864, is a simple thing depicting a brother and sister sitting under a spreading tree in a pastoral setting.1 This was followed by a few more of equal simplicity. But it wasn't until 1870 with the creation of the "Skating Carnival" composite that Notman paid any serious attention to this medium. In Montreal, from April to August 1870, The Gazette carried advertisements inviting interested citizens to see the composite and the enlarged coloured version on display in his studio. The Canadian Illustrated News of May 21, 1870, featured a large Leggotype (a halftone reproduction invented by Charles Leggo) of the picture accompanied by enthusiastic comments.
Encouraged by the public reception and the brisk sales of copies of the "Skating Carnival" produced in several sizes, Notman began to include composites as part of his regular service to customers. In the next five years alone, his Montreal studio produced several dozen composites with subjects as widely diverse as the military, families, schools, actors, clergymen and sports groups including snowshoeing, rowing, camping, skating, lacrosse, football and cricket. The most ambitious of these early projects was a composite made in 1875 depicting "The First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada," which included over 450 figures. From then on, composites containing 300 to 450 portraits and of greater complexity in composition and design became commonplace.

Source: "The Composite Photographs of William Notman" Exhibition Catalogue, Montreal, McCord Museum, 1994.


Gernsheim, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim. The History of Photography, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1969.

Greenhill, Ralph and Andrew Birrell. Canadian Photography: 1839-1920, Toronto: Coach House Press, 1979.

Hall, Rodger, Gordon Dodds and Stanley G. Triggs, The World of William Notman, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1993.

Harper, Russell and Stanley G. Triggs. Portrait of a Period, Montreal: McGill University Press, 1967.

Triggs, Stanley G. "William Notman. The Stamp of a Studio/William Notman: l'empreinte d'un studio," Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario and Coach House Press, 1985.

Triggs, Stanley G. "William Notman's Studio: The Canadian Picture/ Le studio de William Notman: Objectif Canada," Montreal: McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992.



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