In an age when it has become easier (and faster) to take a picture than to brush your teeth, the dawn of photography — a time when obtaining a photographic image of yourself meant a) finding a photographer, b) hauling yourself (and your best dress/suit hat and gloves) to said photographer’s studio c) sitting very, very still during the entire duration of the exposure in front of a painted background d) paying money — feels and sounds pretty surreal.
Happily for all us iPhotographers, Instagrammers and other click-happy DSLR enthusiasts, NFB.ca now has a short documentary that revisits this forgotten but crucial era.
The film, Notman’s World, focuses on the great William Notman, a Scottish-born photographer and businessman whose life and work shaped the history of photography in Canada.
Notman, as the narrator says, happened to be the right man at the right time. He moved from Scotland to Montreal in 1856, as the city was entering one of its grandest (and richest) periods in history. Montreal, as it was, was becoming an attractive place for people who wanted to make money, and be seen as looking good doing it.
Notman was a smart cookie. Two years after his arrival in the New World, the photographer, who had extensive training in visual arts and had learned the ropes of Daguerreotyping back in Scotland, obtained a commission from the Grand Trunk Railway to document the building of the Victoria Bridge. (If you’ve ever been to Montreal, that’s the old railway bridge that is super narrow and sounds like “po-pomp po-pomp” under your tires.)
That commission proved to be a godsend. When the Prince of Wales came to check out the work, Notman, wily as a fox, offered him bound copies of all the photos, encased in this fancy hardwood case. The Prince was so happy that he showed His Mom, the Queen. Queen Victoria, for her part, was so pleased that she pronounced him “Photographer to the Queen”. Back in pre-confederation Canada, that was probably the best advertisement anyone could dream of. Notman, realizing this, took it and ran with it.
Soon after, Notman opened a first studio (featuring a massive stone portico engraved with letters that read – you guessed it – “Photographer to the Queen”). In a matter of years, he was operating 20 studios across Canada and the United States. (The message here, upcoming photogs, is this: currying favour with the big wigs pays.)
Because it was Canada’s most important city at the time, but also because his main studio happened to be located right on Bleury Street, most of Notman’s work depicts Montreal and Montrealers. A lot of these show an “exotic” Canada similar to the one we still make fun of Europeans for believing in. (“Yes, we all snowshoe to school and live in igloos.”) The fun part is Notman often re-created these scenes, or “views” in the comfort of his studios, where talented painters created sets evocative of mountains, frozen lakes, snow banks, etc. (Great for looking rugged without freezing your mink off.)
Notman, although it could be tempting to characterize him as such, was probably the furthest removed from the contemporary definition of a “documentary photographer”. Notman (and the legions of photographers he hired, trained and supervised) took pictures to sell to people, not pictures to depress people. He showed not what could be seen but what should be seen. Through his lens, for example, the lumber trade is shown as a brave, thrilling endeavour filled with strong men, beautiful trees and bracing air. Of the massive environmental devastation it left behind, or the impossibly dire working conditions of the lumberjacks, we see nothing.
However idealized, Notman’s photographs nonetheless offer a vast and unique snapshot of the birth of Canada. From coast to coast, and with great art, he immortalized the grandeur of our landscape and the solemn faces of our forefathers. He left behind over 400,000 photographs (negatives or plates) of Canadian people and places – a fine gift to all of us who came after him.
To get you in the mood, here are a few choice Notman photographs I pulled from the McCord Museum’s Notman Photographic Archives.
But first, here’s the film. Give it a watch. I’ll be curious to hear what you think.
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William Notman, photographer, Montreal, QC, 1869
Note: Our man in his studio. (PS. The plant on your right looks so painted, William.)
Aboriginal person with objects to sell, Montreal, QC, 1866
Miss One Spot, Blood, Calgary, AB, about 1925
Note: Awesome look; awesome name.
Frances Jacob, lacrosse player, Montreal, QC, 1876
Note: Did all lacrosse players in the 1870s sport feathered headgear and floral sashes? Or only Montreal ones, on special occasions? Inquisitive minds want to know.
Kahnawake Lacrosse Club, Montreal, QC, 1867
Note: Whatever it was, it seems Mohawk lacrosse players were immune to it.
McGill Hockey Team, Montreal, QC, 1904
Market, Jacques Cartier Square, Montreal, QC, about 1930
Note: An open-air market would be sweet compared to the overpriced sangria, balloon animals and tired tourists you find here now.
Crossing to St. Helen’s Island, near Montreal, QC, 1875
Drawing hay to market across the St. Lawrence River, QC, 1903
Note: This is like Ice Road Truckers: the Horse-Drawn Edition.
The Renaissance Club, Montreal, QC, 1899
Note: Flutes? Pipes? What is going on here?
Mr. Reynolds in costume, Montreal, QC, 1870
Note: Cultural appropriation, Montreal, 1870. Not cool now: not cool then.
Mrs. William Easton as “A Turkish Lady,” Montreal, QC, 1870
Mr. R. Pratt in comic costume as “Robin Hood”, Montreal, QC, 1932
Note: Personal fave. Just wow.