William Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland on March 8, 1826, the first of seven children born to William and Janet Sloan Notman. His father was a well-to-do women's shawl manufacturer and proprietor of a dry goods company in nearby Glasgow. After receiving a classical education with heavy emphasis upon sketching and painting, the junior Notman entered the family business. It is unknown when he developed an interest in photography or where he received his training. He married Alice Woodwark in 1853, and the couple's family would later include five daughters and three sons.
Three years later, the Notman family business was teetering on bankruptcy, and to avoid being arrested for unlawful business practices, Mr. Notman moved to Montreal, Canada, where he found work at a dry goods business, Ogilvy, Lewis & Company. His family joined him shortly thereafter, and to supplement his income during the winter months, Mr. Notman opened a photography studio at 17 Bleury Street. He produced albumen prints as well as ambrotypes and tintypes, but specialized in portraits. Within two years, Mr. Notman's business growth necessitated a move to a more spacious gallery, and an off-site residence for his growing family. In 1858, he acquired his first important photographic commission, the documentation of Montreal's Victoria Bridge construction. Prominent customers ranging from the Prince of Wales to Sitting Bull were treated to the opulent sitting rooms, and the gallery distinguished itself for its superlative portraits, landscapes, and composite photographs. To commemorate the Prince of Wales's dedication of the Victoria Bridge, Mr. Notman created for the royal family a Maple Box Portfolio consisting of more than 500 photographs and stereo views. Shortly afterward, Mr. Notman began promoting himself as "Photographer to a Queen," although there was never official confirmation of this declaration.
By 1860, the Notman studio included a modern art department and employed a staff to hand-paint backdrops, color prints, and retouch negatives. Mr. Notman received universal praise in 1866 for his portrayal of a caribou hunt, which visually recreated a snowstorm for breathtaking effect. Historians would later argue that Mr. Notman's depictions of Canada as predominantly a "snowbound wilderness" would serve to reinforce regional stereotypes. In 1868, Mr. Notman opened studios in Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax, New Brunswick and St. John, and further expanded to U.S. Ivy League colleges, including Harvard, Princeton, Vassar, and Yale. The Montreal headquarters included a staff of 55 (37 men and 18 women) and alone produced 14,000 photographs. When new postal regulations compromised his lucrative college business, Mr. Notman opened several U.S. branches in major cities throughout New England and New York, which eventually grew to 24 locations; and in 1876 opened the Centennial Photographic Company in Philadelphia to be awarded exclusivity to photograph the United States Centennial World Fair. For this event, Mr. Notman created the first-ever photo identification card.
As business expanded, Mr. Notman relied heavily on his family to manage various branches, with his brothers John and James and his sons William McFarlane, George, and Charles handling various administrative operations. At the time of William Notman's death on November 25, 1891, his was the most commercially successful photographic business in North America. When William McFarlane and Charles became co-owners, the firm's name was changed to William Notman & Sons. After William McFarlane Notman's death in 1913, Charles operated the business as a sole proprietorship until his retirement in 1935, which is when thousands of negatives, prints and correspondence were sold to Associated Screen News. Two decades later, these materials were donated to McGill University's McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal, and comprise the extensive Notman Photographic Archives.
2014 Caribou Hunting, the Chance Shot 1866 (URL: https://www.aci-iac.ca/content/art-books/13/Art-Canada-Institute_William-Notman.pdf).
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1011-1013.
2004 Fashion: A Canadian Perspective edited by Alexandra Palmer (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press), p. 25.
2017 The Prince of Wales with a group at Rosemount, Montreal, 1860 (URL: https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/2604079/the-prince-of-walesnbspwith-anbspgroup-at-rosemount-montreal-1860).
2014 The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 by Miles Orvell (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), p. 81.
2014 William Notman Life & Work by Sarah Parsons (URL: https://www.aci-iac.ca/art-books/william-notman).
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