Notman – Visionary Photographer

Merit Award 2020

A sudden snowstorm, encounters with time travelers, and instructions to leave your anger at the door: Notman—Visionary Photographer is not your normal museum exhibition.

Visitors take a dramatic tour of Victorian photographer William Notman’s extraordinary body of work through four aspects of his personality: intrepid businessman, inveterate networker, determined innovator, and visionary artist. For today’s hyper-connected society, relating to “old time” photographs is a challenge. So is understanding analogue technology in this digital age—never mind the innovations inspired and promoted by a photographer working in mid-1800s Montreal.   The design team’s response to these challenges was to use the very approaches employed by Notman: Create visual drama, plunge the viewer into the landscape, connect on a gut level.

Visitors know that they are entering a kinetic space with a modern sensibility from the start. A self-portrait of Notman introduces visitors to his near revolutionary photographic approach of creating the illusion of outdoor scenes that capture detailed movement. Notman manipulated images long before Photoshop, painting “snow” directly onto his negatives. The enlarged entry image is alive with projected snow, creating a dynamic entry point and cleverly mimicking Notman’s own techniques. The effect draws visitors through a series of “snowy” monoliths to a stepped artifact plinth. Turning to leave this room, visitors are confronted with a roomful of people; life-sized Notman portraits are on the back of each monolith. Notman’s ability to capture sharp detail helped the design team pull off this moment of surprise.

Jaded 21st century viewers take photographic portraits for granted; every Instagram feed is filled with them. Notman’s technical ability enabled the design team to enlarge the portraits, encouraging visitors to encounter these vivid time travelers face to face, at eye level. While visitors examine a selection of Notman’s work in a mosaic wall of backlit photographs, they hear a dramatic recording of Notman’s pre-visit instructions to sitters, including the admonishment to not arrive angry or upset, which would surely affect their final portrait. With new eyes, visitors look to the faces and connect with these long-gone people.

Notman employed a large staff of professional artists to hand tint many of his photos. A primary pigment of this work, soft pink, colors an exhibition hallway made even more dramatic by black carpet, creating the same vital contrast found in Notman’s work.

Notman established studios in eastern Canada and the U.S. By the mid-1800s, many Easterners were eyeing The West with interest, though few would have travelled there. Notman saw opportunity and created a series of landscape photographs, many set in stereoscopic devices, a new technology that Notman promoted. To capture this “wow” factor, the design team immersed visitors in a grid-lined space lit mostly by large-scale projections. The gridlines both suggest 3D computer modeling and visually check Notman’s own meticulous appointment ledgers.

Jury Comments: 

“A fantastic contemporary take on a Victorian photographer brings out the best of this photographer's work beautifully, making it fresh and relevant.”

“Elegance at every touchpoint with powerful shifts in scale and lighting that showcase the photographer’s work tools with an equal amount of care. A deft execution.”

Design Firms: 

Canadian Museum of History

Client: 

Notman

Project Area: 

6,600 sq ft

Open Date: 

November 2018

Project Budget: 

$439,525 CAN

Photo Credits: 

Canadian Museum of History

Design Team: 

Julie Guinard (project manager), Eric Pellerin (head of scenography and media productions), John Willis (curator), Meaghan Dalby (learning specialist), Frank Wimart (media producer)

Consultants: 

McCord Museum (curation, content development, original design), Design by Judih Portier (scenography), Gabriel McKinnon (lighting design)

Fabricators: 

Gaslight Electric Co (neon sign reproduction), Expozone Inc (cabinetry, display cases, graphic production and installation)

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