Notman – Visionary Photographer

Original concept created by Melanie Crespin and Bureau Principal for the McCord Museum. Adaption by the Canadian Museum of History in-house creative team, with the support of Design par Judith Portier and Visou Design. 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.


Melanie Crespin, Bureau Principal, Design by Judith Portier, Visou Design

Practice Area


Candian Museum of History


The Challenge

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.

Project Vision

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.

As soon as the visitors step into the exhibition, they are immersed in a sleek contemporary atmosphere where the play between light and darkness is carefully balanced.

Janet Kimber

Exhibition scenography pays homage to one of Notman’s signature and patented techniques: creating the illusion of outdoor winter scenes.

Janet Kimber

Notman’s business grew across Canada and the United States. His vast network encompassed various social spheres; this network is illustrated and magnified by backlit portrait.

Janet Kimber

“Photographer to the Queen” is reproduced over a staircase structure, a metaphor for Notman’s ascent while also referring to the steps to his studio.

Janet Kimber

Design + Execution

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.

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. 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.

Halfway through an exhibition that adheres to the black and white color schemes available to 19th century photographers, visitors are plunged into a pink space.

Janet Kimber

The final room of the exhibition embraces a rigorous grid treatment, which refers to Notman’s archival system.

Janet Kimber

“Photographer to the Queen” is reproduced over a staircase structure, a metaphor for Notman’s ascent while also referring to the steps to his studio.

Janet Kimber

Designers wanted visitors to appreciate the awe -inspiring effect of Notman’s landscapes on Victorian audiences. A large projection immerses visitors into the heart of the images.

Janet Kimber

Project Details
A fantastic contemporary take on a Victorian photographer brings out the best of this photographer's work beautifully, making it fresh and relevant.
Juror 1
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.
Juror 2
Design Team

Melanie Crespin (original design)
Eric Pellerin, Kerry McMaster (in-house scenographers)
Frank Wimart (in-house media producer)
Judith Portier, Visou Design (design production)


McCord Museum (curation, content development, original design)


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

Photo Credit

Janet Kimber

Open Date

November 2018