McCord Museum of Canadian History
The Photographic Studio of William Notman

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The Photographer's Art: Seeing Beyond the Model
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The Photographer's Art: Seeing Beyond the Model

William Notman is like a director: he aims to make the sitter look good and to reveal her or his true character.


Transcription

Narrator
It is the summer of 1872, and at the windows looking out onto Bleury Street, the workers at William Notman’s studio go about their business for the camera. There are many businesses on Bleury Street in Montreal, but none quite so modern as William Notman’s.
Narrator
The men and women employed here know they are engaged in an entirely new enterprise, and their employer, William Notman, has decided that it is only fitting to make a record of what they do. Here — in this single image — is the entire world of the Victorian photographic studio.
William Notman
If you come into the operating room out of temper, that will probably peep out in the photograph. If you are in a hurry or bustle, you will become heated and your face may be red. ... While a pleasing expression is desirable, a characteristic one is still more so, as nothing is so silly or undignified as a forced smile.

Roger Hall, Historian, University of Western Ontario

Roger Hall
You wouldn’t visit Montreal without, if you were a well-known personage, without a trip to the Notman studio. Notman would invite you of course, but you would want to go there. So that’s why we have all the visiting fireman coming to have their photographs taken.

Lilly Koltun, Director, Portrait Gallery of Canada

Lily Koltun
Oh, gosh. Everybody wanted to get dressed up for photographers. After all, it was really kind of a big event. It wasn’t a snapshot you were going for. Whatever level of society you were at, you would get dressed up in your Sunday best. The idea being that you actually were the star in a play. You were about to get on a stage.
Lily Koltun
The photographer was like a director and was going to organize the lights and [your character?] was going to look good and was properly posed. So that your character in the implied play could play his part, because there was an implied plot.

Dennis Reid, Chief Curator, Art Gallery of Ontario

Dennis Reid
So when people went to the William Notman studio they were going to make their mark in a place at a moment, but with this incredible consciousness of that being momentous within the ongoing chain of time. Um, so these were very, very important occasions, very weighty, and of course, Notman delivered all of that sense in the portrait photography. So they end up having that sense of moment of permanence, and they were meant to last well beyond the sitter.
William Notman
The one thing needful of a sitter to learn is how to forget himself. If he could be perfectly free from self-consciousness, he would secure a natural and truthful picture. The operator having a trained eye and long experience, can best determine the most graceful pose, and having his own reputation at stake, this may safely be left to his care.
Dennis Reid
I think the aim of the William Notman studio was to make the sitter look good. But when you spend time looking at the portraits that he produced, there are those occasions when all of the artifice opens up in some way that’s very special and the real character of the sitter seems to come through. Um, I don’t think that’s something that he pursued. I just think its something that his studio was prepared to take advantage of when it happened.
Narrator
William Notman is not content to have just one studio. He is determined on expansion. In 1868, he sends his young employee, William Topley, to Ottawa, to manage a new studio there. Ottawa dignitaries flock to have their portraits taken.
Narrator
William Notman opens studios in Toronto, Halifax and St. John.
Narrator
He decides there is business to be done on the road. Travelling to the Ivy League Colleges of the United States, Notman finds a vast new market. In New York and Boston, he opens branch plants.
Narrator
Notman opens a total of 19 studios in the United States. In all of them, the house style and standards are maintained. His studios bring in enough money, that William Notman is able to buy a mansion on Sherbrooke Street, Montreal, where his neighbours are the Molsons.