McCord Museum of Canadian History
The Photographic Studio of William Notman

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Notman Finds His Way
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Notman Finds His Way

In 1856 William Notman crosses the Atlantic and arrives in the New World. He opens a photographic studio, one of the first in Montreal.


Transcription

Narrator

It is 1891, the last year of his life. William Notman has been in business in Montreal for 35 years. In that time, he and the photographers working for him have taken over 160,000 pictures. Such industry has made Notman rich; it has also made him famous. It has not always been this way: When he arrived in Montreal from Glasgow 35 years earlier, William Notman was unknown and had little more than the clothes on his back.

Narrator
In 1856 William Notman comes over the ocean to the New World, as many have done before and many will do after, to escape his past and find a future. He is on the run from the law, a small matter of some creative accounting. And in the choice between jail and Montreal, Montreal wins.
William Notman
I begin to hope I may yet be able to repair at least a part of the loss I was the cause of. I am now a photographer. I have been giving the subject much attention and expect it will yield me a fair return for my trouble ...
Narrator
In Montreal he finds a booming metropolis, largely populated by Scots. Here, he knows he can do business. He opens a photographic studio, one of the first in the city.
Narrator
William Notman is fascinated by the new technology of photography, which he believes can also be an art. He may not know it, but William Notman is there at the birth of a revolution.
Narrator
Notman begins by taking portraits of the Montreal elite. He cannot afford elaborate backgrounds, so his first images are plain. For two years he works alone.
Narrator
Portraits: his stock and trade.
Narrator
Then, in 1858, William Notman gets his first large commission. The directors of the Grand Trunk Railway hire him to take pictures of the building of the new Victoria Bridge. The bridge, which crosses the St. Lawrence River, is one of the great engineering achievements of the 19th century.
Narrator
It is the turning point in Notman’s career. William Notman has found his future, and has found a way to make it pay.