Sunday, April 5, 2015

Composite Photography of William Notman

The rapid advancement of photography must have been a wonderful thing to common people in the 19th century. For the fraction of a portrait's price, one could keep a photograph of their loved one close at hand, or even on their person. In North America, photo studios and travelling booths could be found almost anywhere, including most survey crews having a photographer as part of the team.

However, if you wonder why the people in those older photographs look weary and unhappy, it's probably because having a photograph taken was a tedious task which called for long periods of immobility. Body stands and props were needed to maintain stillness while facial muscles strained after minutes of holding a smile.

Scotsman William Notman was an amateur photographer when he emigrated to Canada in 1856. After a short stint working at a dry goods firm, he set up a small studio in Montreal, Quebec. Success soon had him moving into the elegant building next door which allowed rooms for the studio, dressing rooms, art department and processing stations.

Photograph | Mr. William Notman Sr., Montreal, QC, 1861 | I-0.16.1
Mr. William Notman Sr., Montreal, QC, 1861
 William Notman (1826-1891)
© McCord Museum
Photograph | William Notman Studio, 17 Bleury Street, Montreal, QC, about 1875 | N-0000.157
William Notman Studio, Montreal, QC, ca 1875
William Notman (1826-1891) 
© McCord Museum

Gaining in popularity at the time was the small carte-de-visite, patented in Paris in 1854, which could be displayed in an album or in a frame as a cabinet-card. Cheaply made, these business card-size photographs were quick to catch on with the general public, but lacked the detail finesse of the daguerreotype. 

Notman's success was due to eschewing the popular daguerreotypes while putting his efforts into the wet collodial process which had been perfected in the 1850's by the Englishman, Frederick Scott Archer. The revolutionary wet collodial process was so technically challenging that a slight timing or chemical error at any step would put the photograph at risk. But once accomplished, and unlike the daguerreotype process, unlimited copies could be printed from the glass negatives, and the resulting photographs could be displayed in whatever size and wherever the owner wanted.

If you're interested in seeing the wet collodial process in action, check out this brief video from the J. Paul Getty Museum about Photography: The Wet Collodial Process.

With the ability to produce larger images while keeping the sharp detail of the daguerreotype, the Grand Trunk Railway commissioned Notman to document the construction of Montreal's Victoria Bridge. (This is the same bridge the train passes beneath in my post, Trains on Ice.)

Portfolio | CANADA EAST, portfolio from the Maple Box, 1859-1960 | N-0000.193.1-202
Portfolio - CANADA EAST, portfolio from the Maple Box, 1859-1960, measuring 76.2 x 91.4 x 5.1 cm (30 x 36 x 2 in) William Notman (1826-1891) © McCord Museum

The above images showing the Victoria Bridge are only a few of the 500 photographs about Canada which Notman collected into one of two special portfolios to be presented as an official gift to Queen Victoria's heir, Albert Edward, HRH the Prince of Wales, upon his 1860 goodwill visit to Canada and the United States. A large maple box contained two leather-bound portfolios, one entitled Canada East, and the other Canada West. Each lavish portfolio measured 76.2 x 91.4 x 5.1 cm (30 x 36 x 2 in) and was held together by a silver clasp. Apparently, Queen Victoria liked the gift so much, she designated Notman, "Photographer to the Queen".

According to the McCord Museum, Notman created a duplicate set which he submitted to the 1862 International Exhibition in London and was awarded a medal for "excellence in an extensive series of photographs." Check the McCord Museum link for images and video of the actual maple box and photograph portfolios.

By 1864, the William Notman Studio had a total of 35 employees, many of which were photographers who had spread out across British North America and into parts of the United States. 

Back when Notman emigrated from Scotland, photographers were already experimenting with composite imagery all over the United Kingdom and Europe as well as in North America. Yet it wasn't until the late 1860's when he started experimenting himself. Only a couple years after his first crude attempts, Notman created his famous huge Fancy Ball Skating Carnival photograph.

Photograph | Skating Carnival, Victoria Rink, Montreal, QC, painted composite, 1870 | N-0000.116.21.1
Photograph - Skating Carnival, Victoria Rink, Montreal, QC, painted composite, 1870
William Notman (1826-1891) Silver salts, oil on canvas - Albumen process, 
137 x 176 cm (60 x 70 inches) © McCord Museum

As stated earlier, taking photographs was a long process of immobility. If keeping a dozen or so people from moving was difficult, taking a photograph with a couple hundred participants was impossible. Composite photography used the cut and paste technique to create photographs where numerous participants blend seamlessly together - and into - a painted background.

Along with the technical aspect, Notman's Skating Carnival stood out because of its huge size and use of color. Even today, a 5 ft x 6 ft photograph demands attention. But Notman had a vision and decided the large fancy dress skating carnival to be held in honor of Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria's third son who at the time was stationed with the Rifle Brigade in Montreal, was the perfect opportunity to promote his business.

The Notman Studio put an ad in the paper requesting anyone who would be at the carnival and wished to be in the photograph make a sitting appointment wearing their costume. 150 people responded to the ad, which included the following starting off with the man of the hour himself:

Photograph | Prince Arthur William Patrick Albert, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, Montreal, QC, 1870 | I-45007.1
Prince Arthur William Patrick Albert, 
Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, 
Montreal, QC, 1870
William Notman (1826-1891)
© McCord Museum

Photograph | Mr. Reynolds in costume, Montreal, QC, 1870 | I-43612.1
Mr. Reynolds in costume, Montreal, QC, 1870
William Notman (1826-1891)
© McCord Museum

Photograph | Miss F. Prior, posed for a composite, Montreal, QC, 1870 | I-43757.1
Miss F. Prior, posed for a composite, 
Montreal, QC, 1870
William Notman (1826-1891) 
© McCord Museum

Photograph | Missie Hattie Atwater on skates, Montreal, QC, 1869-70 | I-43635.1
Missie Hattie Atwater on skates,
Montreal, QC, 1869-70

William Notman (1826-1891) 
© McCord Museum

Turning the individual photographs into the finished product took several steps, but if you want to see where each of the above 4 individuals are positioned in the final photograph, check out the animated composite gallery feature at the McCord Museum.

Like a paint-by-number, a plan is required to show the position of each participant.

Photograph | Numbered key for the Skating Carnival composite of 1870, copied 1900-30 | N-0000.68.2
Photograph - Numbered key for the Skating Carnival composite of 1870, copied 1900-30 William Notman (1826-1891) © McCord Museum

Photograph | Skating Carnival, Victoria Rink, Montreal, QC, 1870 | I-45122.1
Photograph - Skating Carnival, Victoria Rink, Montreal, QC, 1870  William Notman (1826-1891) Silver salts on paper mounted on paper - Albumen process, composite photograph © McCord Museum

I've skipped steps for brevity, but if you're interested in the process, check out the McCord Museum for more information.

Once the public saw the completed Skating Carnival photograph, William Notman's studio never looked back.

The Grand Trunk Railway composite photograph below is just one example of the meticulous work Notman employed to create memorable group photographs.

Photograph | Grand Trunk Railway Engineering Department group, composite 1877 | N-0000.73.19
Photograph - Grand Trunk Railway Engineering Department group, composite, 1877, Notman & Sandham, Silver salts on paper mounted on card - Albumen process © McCord Museum

For games, activities, videos and animations of 19th century photography, check out the wonderful resources and virtual exhibits of the Notman Studio at the McCord Museum.

Join me on my next posting day on May 5th when I present a series of photographs under the heading, Is it Real or Composite?

So your turn... I think what astounded me most while researching this topic were the photographic techniques available during the 3rd quarter of the 19th century. What about you?


Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and the youngest of their four kids. Anita's stories are set, but not limited to the western prairies. She is blessed to be included in Guideposts Books A Cup of Christmas Cheer collection. Anita is represented by Mary Keeley of Books & Such Literary Management. You can find Anita Mae at


  1. Hi Anita, this is fascinating. I'd done a lot of research on photography in the 1800s and knew about many of the techniques available but this is the first I heard of William Notman. He was a true artist. The ease by which we snap photographs today seems to have taken the art out of photography.

    1. Margaret, since you've researched the history of photography for your novel, A Vision of Lucy, where the heroine is a female photographer, I have to admit I was wondering what you'd think of this post. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with kind words.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I know a true photographer and she makes art with each shot. I on the other hand . . . make blurry photos . . . it is so bad that my daughter's won't let me take shots of them . . . even on their phones! ; ) Blessings.

    1. Christ B, you are not alone. I know many people who take blurry photos - and one in particular who cuts people's heads off. Although my better shots outnumber my blurred ones, it's only with the invention of digital cameras that I can redeem myself with instant results and therefore the ability to retake on the spot.

      The thing to remember is that when you press down to take the photo, you'll have a tendency to push the camera down, too. One trick is to hold your breath before shooting and concentrate on the finger that will be clicking. If you aren't jerky and jab at it, you should get off a clean shot and your photos should be clearer.

      Thanks for visiting. :)

  3. Amazing and very interesting!

    1. Thanks, KayM. I appreciate you dropping in to say so. :)

  4. Incredible. I had no idea so many skilled steps were required to create cabinet cards. It makes me appreciate my collection even more. It also makes me realize what a miracle it is to have a camera in my phone.