Watch the birdie!

Some quite incredible portraits from the days when photos were fun

December 20 1958

Watch the birdie!

Some quite incredible portraits from the days when photos were fun

December 20 1958

Watch the birdie!

Some quite incredible portraits from the days when photos were fun

WHEN photography was young and William Notman was the most famous portraitist in the land, a sitting in his Montreal studio was as gay an outing as any the winter holiday season could provide. It took the planning, and the gusto, of a theatrical production; back in the 1870s and 80s people dressed up their personalities as well as their figures to have their pictures taken. They appeared in sports attire with prop sleds, or as living cartoons (lower left). Children acted out l ittle Red Riding Hood, newsboys and cabbies appeared in their working clothes, striking characteristic positions. Young bloods, tiny tots and old ladies turned up at Notman’s studio and allowed themselves to be posed in human-interest situations strikingly different from the glum head-and-shoulders portraits of a later age.

On this and the following pages, we present a sampling of some of the fabulous Mr. Notman's liveliest portraits. They are taken from the Notman collection, now being catalogued at McGill with the help of Maclean’s. They serve to underline the fact that, in an age that knew no canned entertainment, people made their own fun.

Watch the birdie! continued

Notman turned his sittings into theat rical p roductions

W HEN a businessman has his portrait taken these days he seldom wears his working clothes. He gets dressed in his best bib and tucker, wipes most of the expression off his face, and, not without considerable ennui, faces the camera. That wasn’t how it was eighty years ago, when most of these portraits were made. In those days the camera was not something to be taken for granted and tradesmen and professionals alike often appeared (with an assist from Mr. Notman and his bag of props) as their fellow men were used to seeing them. This gives these Notman photographs a journalistic quality which many modern photographic studios don’t inject into their work. But they do have one quality in common with a good lot of twentieth-century portraits: the subjects display a broad streak of ham. If the poses are a bit more striking, the gestures slightly more flamboyant, it was because motion pictures and television had not yet been invented and the only chance a man had to express himself was that new-fangled gadget, a camera.

continued on next page

Watch the birdie! continued

Notman’s studio techniques foretold TV’s

IF THESE ladies were alive today they would probably be on television. Most of them are young Montreal debutantes—with names like Potter, Fish, Newcomb and Dcfly—striking theatrical poses before or after the various amateur productions of the day. William Notman lived in the great age of melodrama, when Camille and Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Joan of Arc (above, at the stake) and Robin Hood (below, with bow) were as much a part of life as Wyatt Earp or John’s Other Wife have been in our times. The fabulous Mr. Notman did not realize it, of course, but he and his portrait camera stood on the threshold of an era that led directly to the cathode-ray tube. The ladies in these pictures not only created roles on the stage, but also in the make-believe world of the Notman portrait studio which differs only in degree from today’s elaborate TV stages. The basic ingredients were there: the unwinking eye of the camera lens on one hand and, on the other, the Heroine emoting.

continued on next page

Watch the birdie! continued

Ham ivas still ham — even hack in William Notman’s day

THE stock characters of nineteenth-century theatre are all shown in these Notman portraits—the Beau Brummel types, the comic clergyman, the comic drunk—and, of course, Napoleon himself. The odd thing about these photographs, really, is that they could easily have been taken yesterday by a modern photographer. But Notman had only natural light, from a skylight, to work with, glass plates and slow shutter speeds that required fixed and studied poses. In spite of these disadvantages he had no trouble at all in bringing out the strong streak of ham that lies in every man, no matter what his century or his condition in life.