Few of us have heard of William Notman, the suggestively named inventor of Canadian photography, and possibly its greatest practitioner. Notman left England precipitately in 1856, to avoid imprisonment for fraud, and shipped out to Montreal. There, after a short apprenticeship in photographic procedures, he set up his own studio on Bleury Street. Within a few years his skill in promotion and his ability with the camera made him the foremost photographer in the city, and soon after that in the whole country.
He was especially admired for his composite group photographs and his studio simulations. For the latter he patented a polished zinc plate used to represent ice in his winter scenes; for the composite works (college graduation groups, army groups, politicals, and large arrays of mere citizens) he photographed the dozens—at times hundreds—of his subjects individually in separate poses, and then assembled them all in realistically painted settings, which were then re-photographed and sold to the participants.
From the reviewer's remarks quoted in The World of William Notman (McClelland and Stewart) we can gather that these works were appreciated all the more for their artificiality; no one was ever fooled by either the simulations or the composites, nor were they meant to be. At the same time Notman developed a straightforward and very "modern" style of documentary in his photographs of city scenes, pastoral views and industrial development. He was quick to understand the role of the railway in Canada and won commissions from the railroad capitalists to "capture" the wild country and the wild people the iron rails were dispersing. Notman's approach was voracious: he seems early on to have decided to appropriate everything in British North America to his vast library of images.
Indeed there is a sense in which all Canadian photography after Notman can be seen to be superfluous: he left half a million glass plates behind him. Where he couldn't go himself he sent employees carefully trained in his manner of photography, and his Montreal gallery became a department store of natural wonders and exotic peoples (rivers, cataracts, rockslides, first floor; shipping scenes, second floor, etc.). His portrait gallery included every prominent person in Canada and the U.S.A. His portrait of Sanford Fleming, Inventor of Standard Time, is even more fearsome than Julia Margaret Cameron's famous rendering of Alfred Lord Tennyson as The Dirty Monk. There is something frighteningly Canadian about this guy, who in his own portraits looks like an ancestor of Timothy Eaton. Oh yeah: Notman also invented the Insurance Company Calendar, and his last invention was the Photo-I.D. card, created to manage the huge staff of employees at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876.
Notman's department store approach to photography is carried on in this century in the work of Courtney Milne, whose recent Sacred Places in North America, subtitled A Journey into the Medicine Wheel (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), represents the fruit of numerous image-hunting expeditions across the continent. Milne's photographs are always pretty good, although often sugar-coated, and some in this book are stunning. The unattributed bits of Native story that he attaches to them are not stunning, however, and serve merely to exacerbate the uneasiness one feels in the presence of voracious collectors we know who will stop at nothing to add another specimen to their collections. Milne even carries on the Notman tradition of the composite photograph: throughout the book are deposited a number of truly embarrassing images made with a computer and bits of things: a huge moon, a leaping whale, pieces of crystal, an unreal rainbow and God knows what else. These he proudly refers to as composites, but does Norman a disservice by doing so. For Norman resorted to the composite when his technology required it. Milne resorts to his technology when he finds reality wanting.
Taken together, Milne's photographs (real and unreal) point relentlessly elsewhere, to some virtual place outside of time. Call it Beauty or call it Spirit: it's all nowhere.