By Nora Hague, Photographic Archivist, McCord Museum, Montreal
(reprinted from March 1996 Connections © 1996 QFHS)

The Notman Photographic Archives, in the McCord Museum of Canadian History [Montreal]; documents, through its holdings, the history of Canada from the 1840's to today- the land, the people, the places, activities, and events. The collection comprises over 700,000 photographic prints, glass negatives, lantern slides, daguerreotypes and other works representing a range of photographic processes. Also in the Notman Photographic Archives are related archival documents, photographic equipment, and a comprehensive research library of approximately 2,000 books, pamphlets and catalogues dealing with the history of photography. At the core of the collection is the William Notman Collection of 400,000 photographs taken over a period of 78 years, richly documenting many facets of Canadian life. To this has been added the work of hundreds of photographers, both amateur and professional. The Archives are open to the public by appointment.

When William Notman emigrated to Canada in August of 1856 at the age of 30, he arrived in Montreal and quickly found employment with a dry goods company. By November, he had saved enough to pay passage for his wife and child, and the Notman family was here to stay.

When the port of Montreal froze in the winter, commercial life slowed somewhat and William Notman asked for a leave of absence from his job to try his hand at photography. With the help of a loan from his employer, he set up a studio on Bleury street, and advertised in the local papers.

The major part of the Notman Collection is the portraits. William Notman was widely respected as a portraitist and his premises were frequented by people of all walks of life. The prominent people of Montreal and visitors from abroad sought out his studio to have their likenesses committed to silver for posterity, some of them drawing on the talents of Notman's art department to render the image in colour as a painted photograph. As well, Notman's door was not closed to those of lesser station, as his prices were competitive with the popular market of the time. Thus in the Notman portraits we have a cross section of Canadians and visitors to Montreal and an impressive display of his artists' skills. What makes the Notman Collection unique among photograph collections are the records that he kept.

His earliest works were made using the wet plate (or collodion) process, in which the plate in the camera formed part of the finished product. The image was formed in negative on a glass plate, and when placed against a black background, such as velvet, black paper or black paint appeared in positive form, and was sold to the client, usually in a leather or thermoplastic hinged case lined with velvet or silk, and clipped together with a gold coloured metal strip folded over the edges. In this process, known as the ambrotype, there was nothing for the artist to keep on file; the plate was sold to the client, and if another photograph was wanted, the subject would have to be rephotographed. The same process was also used to produce tintypes, in which the plate was a piece of black enamelled iron instead of glass, and the image appeared reversed. Tintypes were frequently inserted in similar cases and were sold to the client.

About 1860, William Notman decided to switch from ambrotype / tintype production to the negative / paper print system. There were several good reasons to do so, and the actual process was no different; the wet plate, instead of being exposed correctly to form a positive against black, was exposed slightly longer and used to print a positive image on sensitized paper using the light of the sun. Multiple paper prints could be made from one negative, without having to visit the studio for another sitting. The paper print could be glued onto a card bearing the photographic artist's name (and perhaps some advertising) and placed in family albums or mailed to far off sections of the family without the risk of being shattered. Prints could be cut up and pasted together into composites, to commemorate events and groups too difficult (or impossible) to photograph in situ.

Several months into the new system, William Notman seems to have encountered a filing problem. The negatives, which he was now keeping on file, were accumulating and he was confronted by every photographer's nightmare; finding the negative when the client wants another print. Personal experience suggests that when more than 300 images are involved, a filing system becomes necessary, and in the front of the first Picture Book, dated 1861, is William Notman's solution to the problem. First, he began immediately to number his negatives, scratching the number and the sitter's name along the side of the negative, scratching the number and his name at the bottom within the finished area of the print, writing the number in pencil on the back of the paper print, and in red ink or pencil on the back of the print's mount, and entering the number under the sitter's family name in an Index Book. The 300 images taken before the system was started were grouped by visual appearance and similar poses, such as one man standing, one lady sitting, a pair of babies on the floor, each section consisting of about twenty images, and they were pasted into the first pages of his first Picture Book, numbered .1, .2, .3 and so on up to 0.300. After the last so called "point-numbered" image, he pasted in his newly numbered portraits, writing the name of the sitter and the number of the photograph under each image. The corresponding negative was placed in a numbered, identified envelope, and stored.

The majority of the portraits were of a size and format known as "carte de visite", measuring about 2 x 3, and were glued into the Picture Book between appropriately sized pre printed lines. As the Notman Studio also offered a full range of sizes, such as stereos, cabinets (5 x 7), 6 x 6s, 8 x 10s, 10 x 12, 11 x 14 s and even 18 x 22 s, a record of the larger sizes was needed. Since the carte de visite book could not accommodate them, a space was left, the size of the image marked, and the number and the name of the subject written under the space. In later years, after 1866 when the cabinets, later known as 5 x 7s, became extremely popular, they were glued into bigger books, 4 to a page, always with the name, date and number under the photograph, but the larger images were located by the spaces in the carte de visite books.

Numbering the photographs and creating a chronological record of the images was only part of the solution. Often the photographs sold to clients would be pasted into albums or cut up to form mosaics, or written on, obscuring or obliterating the number; one could not expect the client to keep the numbers of the photographs he had ordered on file. An alphabetical record was a necessary companion to the numerical file. When a photograph was taken, the number of the individual photographs was entered in an Index Book under the family name. The family names were grouped under the initial letter, so that the Smiths, Sicards, Stephens and Simards would all be found in the "S" section of the book, but within the "S" section, there was no order besides the chronological order in which the entries were made. Portraits of any subsequent people named "Campbell", regardless of any family relationship to the previous sitters named "Campbell", would also be entered under "Campbell" in the "C" section of the Index Book. Variations in spelling were ignored; if it sounded like Campbell, even if it lacked the "p", it would be entered under the "Campbell" section, and sometimes the heading for the section would have a note saying "or Cambell". The identification under the photograph in the Picture Book would be spelled as the sitter wanted. The Index Books were not linked to any particular year; when one section of the Index Book became full (usually under "Smith") and there was no space to enter another Smith, a new Index Book was started. Any photographs taken which were not portraits, such as Mr. Thompson's house, or a view of Victoria Square were entered in a separate section called "Miscellaneous" at the back of the Index Book.

And so life continued. In studying the Picture Books, of which we have about 200, various anomalies can be found, the reasons for which are not always evident. In 1874, probably the spring, the studio took the 100,000th image, a copy of a carte de visite portrait, Mr. Hart. For unknown reasons, the studio numbered the next image 5,000, thereby starting what has come to be referred to as Series II. By default the previous 100,000 images came to be known as Series I. Both Series have several gaps which are obviously planned, as the numbers missing start at logical points and continue to a round number. For example, the first gap in Series II runs from 25000-II to 39999-II, so the two numbers appearing in the Picture Book are 24999-II, a copy of a carte de visite of a lady for Mr Gibson, immediately followed by 40000-II a blank with the message "Numbers left for Halifax Branch" written on it. The Halifax studio opened in June, 1869, which corresponds to one of the earlier gaps in the sequence (49,999-I to 60,000-I) and the Notman studio headquarters in Montreal were probably trying to maintain a central registry of numbers, but given the communication methods of the 19 c it was probably an impossible task, and the studio was to have 23 branches, which would have been unmanageable.

And so it continued. The studio took and processed photographs, documenting the development of Canada and continuing to use their system. Branch studios came and went, photographers came as apprentices, learned their trade, and left to found their own studios, often employing the same type of numbering scheme. In 1893 the studio reached 100,000-II for the second time, with a portrait of Miss Miskel on Jan 14th. By that time, William Notman the Founder was dead, and the studio was being run by his son William McFarlane Notman, who seems to have had no objection to continuing on with the same series of numbers. Possibly to conserve paper and space, the Picture Books after 1903 contain a print of every photograph no matter what size, but since the space in the Book was only 2 x 3, the larger sized prints are cropped to fit, leaving us with a tantalizing glimpse of the images for which negatives no longer exist. 200,000-II was reached in 1920 with a copy of C.B. Thorne on Dec 1st, and 300,000-II in 1930, with a 6 x 8 of D. Wilcox, for which we have no image as the negative no longer exists. The last recorded number is 295,438-II in an unfinished Picture Book, and 311,602-II in the negatives in 1936.

In 1935 the Notman body of work was sold to the Associated Screen News, and run as a separate division with Charles Notman as its vice-president. The system of numbers continued, but the Index and the Picture Books were replaced by a 3 x 5 card system, arranged alphabetically in file cabinets, and the prints were dry-mounted onto the back of the appropriate file card.

The Archives was formed in 1956 when the work of the studio William Notman and Son was donated to McGill University to be deposited in the McCord Museum. The Notman Collection contains over 400,000 photographs taken by William Notman, and his sons and staff over a period of 78 years, and covers many facets of Canadian life.

On the death of Charles Notman in 1955, the older part of the collection, what we tend to consider the "original" Notman Collection, was obtained by concerned Canadians and given to McGill University, and the Notman Photographic Archives was born.

The studio continued to function under the name of "William Notman & Son" through the 1950's until the end of 1993, when the owner of the name and the studio retired, and generously gave the Notman Photographic Archives the negatives and files for the period from 1939 to 1993. This gives the Notman Collection an almost complete run, fully indexed, from 1861 to 1993, and makes it possible to trace and identify any Notman photograph taken in the Montreal studio. Over 200 Picture Books and 43 Index Books cover the 78 years that the firm was in business and the two file cabinets of cards cover the later part of the collection.

The system which worked for William Notman also works for us. As all the photographs are numbered and dated, it made little sense to apply one of the standard archival numbering systems to the Notman Collection, so we are using Mr. Notman's system, despite its idiosyncrasies. We have an embryonic computerized database, but because Notman's system is so usable, the concentration has been on the other collections within the Notman Photographic Archives. Eventually when staff, time, hard disk space and money become available, one of the easiest projects would be to systematically enter Notman's numbers into the database, which would make searching for a name much easier. The finding aids at this time consist of an alphabetical card file, covering the whole of Series I (1861-1874) and part of Series II (1874-1885), Notman's Index Books (1861-1936), and the later extension's card files, covering 1939-1951 and 1951-1993.

The entire holdings of the Notman Photographic Archives are accessible by the public by appointment, telephone or letter. The preferred method is to arrange an appointment and consult the files in person. The research files are in the form of 8 x 10 photographic prints in plastic sleeves, classified by subject. The visitor makes a selection, from which Xerox copies are be made. If a visit is impossible, the staff will, upon receiving a description of the material needed, make a selection for the client, and send Xerox copies by mail, but due to budget and staff cuts, this could take a long time. The Notman Collection is arranged using the original numbers assigned by Mr. Notman, and any numbered Notman photographs found, for example, in family albums can be identified easily by using the card files, both numerical and alphabetical. These card files cover the collection up to 1885, at which point, the original files must be consulted. Once the Notman number for a photograph is found, the image can be seen and Xeroxed from the microfilm of the portrait picture books.

After final choice is made, an order may be placed. The period from placement of order to completion ranges depending upon the size of the order, the type of reproduction requested, the number of other orders and the client's deadline; usually about two weeks.

Besides students, teachers and professors, the photographs are used for a wide variety of purposes, with requests coming from many different countries, made by anyone needing a photograph showing Canadian subject matter.

Many thanks to Nora Hague for permission to reprint this aticle.

For more on Notman Photographic Archives see: Connections - vol.#11, no: 2, December 1988

Over 23,000 photographs from the Notman Photographic Archives are now available to search on-line with more to be added in the future. 


By Wm. Notman & Fennings Taylor, Published by Notman, printed by Lovell 1865/1868

A collection of Notman Photographs 1856-1915
Edited by J. Russell Harper and Stanley Triggs
Published by McGill University Press, Montreal, 1967

By Stanley G. Triggs
Published for the Art Gallery of Ontario by the Coach House Press, Toronto, 1985
ISBN 0-88910-283-x

Published by the McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992
ISBN 1-895615-08-09

The Nineteenth Century Through a Master Lens
By Roger Hall, Gordon Dodds and Stanley Triggs
Published by McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, 1993
ISBN 0-7710-3773-2

By Stanley G. Triggs
Published by the McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1994
ISBN 1-895615-04-06

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