Hélène Samson has been the curator of the photography collection at the McCord Museum since 2006. She is interested in collecting vernacular Canadian photographs and updating nineteenth-century photographic archives. She has just edited a book produced by the McCord Museum and Éditions Hazan (Paris) on the work of Canadian photographer William Notman (1826–91), as a complement to the exhibition Notman, a Visionary Photographer, presented at the McCord Museum from November 4, 2016, to March 26 2017.
An interview by Jacques Doyon
JD: What is the importance of the Notman archive – its nature and scope? What have been the major steps in inventorying and displaying it since it was received by the McCord Museum in 1956?
HS: The photographic archive from 1856 to 1935 of the Notman studio in Montreal was acquired by McGill University in 1956 as an endowment for the McCord Museum. The actual archive is composed, among other things, of 200,000 negatives on glass plates, 188 picture books, and various documents very rich in historical information, such as index books and payroll registers. It is estimated that there are 450,000 different photographs, 80% of which are identified portraits. That said, today we speak of a Notman Collection, as we continue to acquire photographs and objects related to William Notman and his business. Since this major acquisition, numerous donations by the photographer’s descendants and by collectors have greatly enriched the collection. For example, Skating Carnival (1870), the famous composite photograph coloured in oils that portrays almost 150 people at the Victoria skating rink, was a gift from Geoffrey Notman, William Notman’s grandson, in 1965. Similarly, family correspondence, administrative papers, and a plethora of photographs conserved by the Notman family have been offered to the McCord Museum in recent decades….
I see two major stages in the exploration of this collection. The first was the huge amount of work done by Stanley Triggs, curator from 1965 to 1993; for thirty years, he studied the studio’s archives and published his research. He wrote the remarkable book Portrait of a Period (1967), which brought an extraordinary body of work into the public view. His work went hand in hand with that of Nora Hague, who was the main cataloguer of negatives and prints from 1965 to 2015. The second stage was the vast undertaking of the digital catalogue and the digitization of photographs under the direction of Nicole Vallières in the 1980s and 1990s. This project is ongoing today.
JD: Notman, a Visionary Photographer is being presented as the first retrospective exhibition of his work. How important is this project? Why has such a retrospective not been possible up to now?
HS: This first retrospective of Notman’s work makes it possible for neophytes to discover the entire range of his oeuvre and to see what he left for posterity. It also fills out the picture for those who had heard about him but had only a vague idea about what he did. Previous exhibitions, such as the one in 1994 on the composite photographs, were intended more for the public who already knew his work. For those people, this exhibition provides an opportunity to review their knowledge and to see all of the work through the lens of modernity.
[See the printed or digital version of the magazine for the complete article.]