Photographer William Notman, an insightful witness of his time

William Notman was able to capture the spirit of Montreal and immortalize the upper middle class. For him, photography was a profitable art that allowed him to build an empire. Art historian Helen Samson, former curator of the McCord Stewart Museum, recounts how he succeeded in establishing himself as the most prominent photographer of his time.

William Notman was 30 years old when he arrived in Montreal in 1856, after problems with the law in Scotland, his native country. Helen Samson notes that “the beginnings of photography, and the history of photography, took place in part in Scotland”.

He found a job at haberdashery Ogilvy, Lewis and Company. He took out a loan from his employers to open a photography studio. His studio is located near the business district, on Rue De Bleury.

Quickly, William Notman weaves very strong bonds in Scottish and British society, and immediately gives an “impression of quality work”.

In 1858, he was awarded a contract to photograph the end of the construction of the Victoria Bridge. “He was very daring. He took very large pictures on large panes of glass,” says Helen Samson. William Notman managed to become Queen Victoria’s official photographer, especially when he came to inaugurate the bridge that bears his name in 1860.

Portraits account for 80% of his work, and his studio becomes a trademark. “It was a place where there was a theatrical performance. It was not a trifle to go to Notman, on the contrary.” William Notman has staff and he invites artists to make decorations, but also to compose his picture frames.

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He began photographing Western Canada, in order to memorialize the construction of the railways, from 1881 to 1889. “Notman, from 1880, had an agreement with Van Horn [le président du Canadien Pacifique] Helen Samson recalls:

He opened studios in Ottawa, Toronto and the United States. “He is above all a businessman,” says Helen Samson. He has a penchant for what is to come and, among other things, the huge place that the image will occupy in communication. »

In conclusion, Helen Samson explains how William Notman marked his era, the second half of the nineteenth centurye century.

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