Not the World of William Notman -- the World of William Notman: The Nineteenth Century through a Master Lens Edited by Roger Hall, Gordon Dodds and Stanley Triggs

By Koltun, Lilly | Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Not the World of William Notman -- the World of William Notman: The Nineteenth Century through a Master Lens Edited by Roger Hall, Gordon Dodds and Stanley Triggs


Koltun, Lilly, Journal of Canadian Studies


THE WORLD OF WILLIAM NOTMAN: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY THROUGH A MASTER LENS. Eds. Roger Hall, Gordon Dodds and Stanley Triggs. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. 232 pp.

There is no doubt that The World of William Notman: The Nineteenth Century Through a Master Lens has been targeted for the general, not the scholarly reader. It has nary a footnote, nor a bibliography nor even a selected readings list for those interested in pursuing the topic; the index is of proper names only, without subjects or key words. The acknowledgments, placed at the back of the book, describe in general terms the institutional and archival sources for the research supporting the text, but mention only two other previous publications relevant to Notman, both by Stanley Triggs, who is one of the three authors of this volume.(f.1) The archival sources listed indicate that the authors concentrated almost entirely on the details of the Notman firm's history at the expense of the wider context within which the firm flourished. The bulk of the book, which is introduced by 64 pages of undemanding text (set, as carefully noted, in a digitized version of the 19th-century typeface "Walbaum") is made up of superb reproductions in 300-line duotone on lavish acid-free paper, a joy to the fingertips. The chapters introducing the photographs review much that is already known about Notman's Canadian activities, and are followed by a new and interesting survey of his photographic work in the United States. The captions are generally simple, one-line identifications of the content of the plates, with no indication of the original size or media of the photographs; hence, for example, we have no idea whether the many full-page warm, dark plates are from carte-de-visite or whole plate albumen prints, or from carbon or platinum prints, or from modern prints made from original or copy negatives. Nor can we tell to what extent that warm tone may imitate or distort the originals. For the general reader, these are quibbles; the wealth of pictures allow a real visual wallow in the past.

Yet that indulgence is soon disturbed by the little uneasinesses that, even for the general reader, begin to wear away at the ostensibly harmless nostalgia. For example, it might perhaps be understandable that the caption for Plate 12, showing 10 young Victorian women in astonishingly short dresses and carrying gym equipment, should be identified only as "Mr. Barnjum's Gymnastic Group, Montreal, 1870" if their individual names had not been recorded for posterity. But given that an historian (Hall) and an archivist (Dodds) collaborated with a photo historian (Triggs) on this book, it is unfortunate that they overlooked an oddity in the caption. The women merit only 13 words, all of them about their clothes, while an additional 62 words are expended on Mr. Barnjum's biography, an individual who does not even appear in the photograph. Why are we told that Mr. Barnjum saw action in the Fenian raids and rose to the rank of major, but not told anything about the opportunities for group physical exercise and competition for women in Montreal at this time, or about this particular group's activities or the uses of the equipment they carry? And then there is Plate 55, "Cree Indians with travois, near Calgary, Alberta, 1887." The caption does not bother with something clearly provided by the photographer on the image itself: the names of the Cree man and woman in both Cree and (whether accurate or not) in English translation.

But perhaps to object to such anonymizing of a few images is, again, merely to quibble. After all, the text clearly praises the scope of Notman's legacy, some 400,000 images, and notes the value of the careful documentation of names and dates of most of them which exists in the Notman Photographic Archives at the McCord Museum in Montreal. Yet in describing that carefully precise legacy, there is something profoundly disturbing about the following sentence: "Victorian and early-twentieth century Canada is clearly portrayed: from cluttered street scenes to pastoral landscapes, from the Indian's lost life on the prairie to the urban and urbane elegance of Montreal's 'Square Mile,' from sweating stevedores on Atlantic wharves to robust railway surveyors planning the push of steel through British Columbia's 'sea of mountains'" (16). …

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