If the United States had invaded Canada during the American Civil War, William Notman might have become, like his contemporary Mathew Brady, a great photographer of action scenes that need no props because they are themselves the inimitable reality. As it was, he became the most famous Canadian photographer of his time; and while his specialty was studio photography, often of the most elaborately contrived kind, his strong sense of composition and his knowledge of technique also led to many uncommonly good pictures of life under Canada’s open sky from one coast to the other. Since his firm’s most active period embraced Canada’s first half century as a nation—from 1867 to World War I—the Notman collection of several hundred thousand negatives, now deposited at the McCord Museum, McGill University, forms an unmatched pictorial record of that expansive era.
An amateur photographer who migrated to Montreal from Scotland in 1856, when he was thirty, William Notman saw the professional opportunity there, and within a year his portrait studio was well known in the city. By the time of Confederation, in 1867, his premises bustled with assistants and bulged with equipment; within another few years he had set up branch studios in Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax—and even New York and Boston. After Notman’s death in 1891, his sons carried on the vigorous tradition of the company. Many are included in the collection Portrait of a Period: A Collection of Notman Photographs, edited by Russell Harper with an introduction by Edgar Andrew Collard, to be published soon by the McGill University Press.