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Canadian Enterprise

June 2024
1min read

The World of William Notman The Nineteenth Century Through a Master Lens

by Roger Hall, Gordon Dodds, and Stanley Triggs, David R. Godine, Publisher, 140 pages, $75.00. CODE: DGD-1

In the introduction to this handsome volume the authors write, “To be a photographer in the nineteenth century was, in a way, to be midwife to our modernity.” Born in 1826 in Scotland, migrating to Canada in 1856, and setting his photographic stamp on dozens of towns and cities in Canada and the United States, William Notman certainly was, if not midwife, at least meticulous chronicler of a world that grew to be our own.

Splendidly reproduced photographs are allowed the full-page or double-page space their finely observed detail needs. And within this framework we see a Canada bursting from the genteel security of its colonial bonds. A studio portrait of Montreal’s mayor in 1873 shows a man fully aware of the dignity of his office but wearing what might be a caveman’s long robe of fur.

The railroads, the prairies, the distant bleak harbors, and the inhabitants of bush communities and fine Victorian cities all are given full measure. Less well known is Notman’s work in the United States, a good sampling of which appears in this volume. It has its appeal, but in the end it is the great waking nation Canada that the photographer, and ultimately the reader, find most awesome.

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