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William Notman (1826-1891), the Photographer
By Nora Hague
William Notman (8 March 1826 - 25 November 1891) was a Canadian photographer and businessman.
Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1826, the same year in which photography was born in France. William Notman moved to Montreal in 1856. An amateur photographer, he quickly established a flourishing professional photography studio on Bleury Street. 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 William Notman "Photographer to the Queen."
A famous studio
Notman's reputation and business grew over the next three decades, making him the first Canadian photographer with an international reputation. 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 also have a portrait taken. Street scenes in the burgeoning cities of Canada, the magnificence of modern transportation by rail and steam, expansive landscapes and the natural wonders, all were in demand either as 8" x 10" prints, or in the popular stereographic form, and were duly recorded by the many staff photographers working for the Notman studio.
William Notman was a regular contributor to the photographic journal Philadelphia Photographer and in partnership with its editor, Edward Wilson, formed the Centennial Photographic Company for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, held in honour of the 100th anniversary of the United States of America in 1876. He won the only gold medal to be awarded by the British judges, and the portrait identification card required for entrance to the grounds was the ancestor of today's various photo-ID cards.
A great legacy
When William Notman died in November 1891, quite suddenly after a short bout of pneumonia, management of the studio Wm Notman & Son was left to his son William McFarlane Notman, an experienced photographer in his own right, who with his brothers, had accompanied the itinerant settlement known as "End of Track" for the Canadian Pacific Railway and documented the construction of the railway towards the west.
In 1935 William McFarlane Notman's younger brother Charles sold the studio to the Associated Screen News, and in 1957 the Notman Collection was purchased by McGill University, Montreal. The 200,000 negatives, 43 Index Books, 200 Picture Books and assorted memorabilia were later transferred to the McCord Museum of Canadian History.
With the addition of the McCord Museum's existing photographic holdings to the Notman Collection, the Notman Photographic Archives was born, with the Notman Collection serving as the kernel for an extensive Canadian photography department, covering Canada from Newfoundland to Victoria, the Great Lakes to the Arctic, from 1841 to 1935.