Notman – to the Queen


Carnival at the Rink, Ottawa – 1881  –  (Top photo)

Born in Paisley, Scotland, Willian Notman moved to Montreal in 1856 when he was thirty, and set up a photography studio. He began with official commissions to document important construction projects, but soon branched out into scenic shots as well, which he marketed in lovely and popular collections – one of which he sent to the Queen – which she enjoyed – which lead to his special royal designation.

But this, while impressive and commercially useful (especially at the time), is the least of his accomplishments – over three decades he grew to be one of the early titans of photography, pioneering many techniques in photo-compositing that we might think far more modern, and indeed, was a true innovator in both fakery and marketing also.  Thanks to his son, the firm persisted until the 1930s, making a unique contribution to the documentation of Canadian, and indeed, North American history.

Tourism in the eighteen-hundreds was a surprisingly big deal, but it also involved a great deal more time and bother than it does nowadays. Couple that with the slowness, weight and general inconvenience of photo-technology of the time, and you had a big problem – no one could ever go home with the ‘action shot’ that they wanted, so they could boast to all their friends.

Enter clever Notman – who set up (incredibly popular) studios with costumes and props to photograph clients and then process them into exciting backgrounds and context shots which they could select, from his lovely prepared album of samples – whether or not they had actually managed to get around to dogsledding, hunting, kayaking, arctic exploration – you name the theme – the range was vast – nor was it confined to rugged manly subjects and his also famous (and equally artfully-staged) genteel drawing room portraits of the well-heeled.

I have to say, even having been fortunate enough to see some of the all-time photographic greats recently – this individual frame (at top) completely blew my mind. We all have ‘tone models’ when we start out – people we want to sound like, on our instrument, or look like, with our brush or pen (and yes, I wanted to write just like Bradbury, then Bacon, then Bradbury again). For drawing, my first maniacal obsession for copying was Rembrandt. I did conte and colour pencil versions of many of my favourites over and over again – and ‘The Night Watch’ was a favourite touchstone. Infinitely fascinating character and light. Later I did a bit of reading about the group that commissioned it, and their unhappiness with the result (yes, more flattering to some than others – but art-first, guys, you wouldn’t have been immortal in a mediocrity!)

Well this piece here has a strangely similar bit of artifice in it, in that every single person in frame was photographed separately, in-studio, and then all painstakingly composited together on the background for the final shot – a staggering amount of work, intended to produce not a general crowd shot, but indeed a myriad of clear characterful individual portraits, all related to one another in the frame – quite different, though you have to look a minute to see it (depth of field esp. – 1881 remember!)

I used to think the legendary old studio guys who could hand-cut 2″ analog tape with a razor to do perfect seamless on-beat splices between one musical section and another were the supreme knife-coordination artists of all time. But friends, we have a strong new contender here.

Canadian Winter

My immigrant friends probably laugh at how much I go on about the weather in Toronto not being what it used to be. I will admit, it wasn’t quite this bad, even in my childhood – nor is this Toronto – rather Montreal, which always gets it worse than us, and way back in the 1860s. All the same, I swear in the old days you could build a snow-fort in December and still be adding to it in March. Does anyone even attempt a backyard rink anymore? Any point at all? Sigh.

Dry-dock near Victoria BC

And before you start thinking the guy was all technical gimmicks, pandering and showmanship, remember his studios which grew and spread around North America worked hard out in the field through that whole period, documenting the world as it was – natural and man-made. Truly beautiful work, too. (I only wish they’d set-up the stereoscopic viewer in such a way that we could see some of his 3D slides – considering all of his other demonstrated mastery, I bet his implementation was right at the very top of the craft).

Yet another brand new idea – from a hundred and seventy-five years ago!

This is not just a snow fort, or an ice-motel, this here is without question a seriously grand piece of construction (no fake), and again, I have to assume they felt sure enduring cold was coming their way, before they even attempted this. Winter-winter.

Where, you might very-well ask, were all of these treasures (and more) on public (zero cost) display?

My friends – this is just the side-exhibit on right now at the Ryerson Image Centre – where I keep telling you to go, and you keep not finding the time. Celebrating their fifth excellent (totally free, and always super-keener-powered) anniversary now. Great photo-inspiration food, every single show we’ve seen. GO!

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