Notman's World begins with a brief recap of the evolution of photographic processes woven in with background on Notman. For example, to illustrate the daguerreotype process, Kish includes a daguerreotype of Notman taken on his wedding day. Notman received lessons in art in his native Scotland before coming to Montreal and founding his famous studios. The first daguerreotypes were too slow to record portraits, but within a very few years, improvements in the process coupled with the creation of the Petzval portrait lens allowed a portrait to be taken in as little as ten seconds. A daguerreotype portrait for 25 cents was within the means of most people whereas a painted portrait was too expensive (scientist Francis Galton noted in a 1905 issue of Nature that his portrait took about 20,000 brush strokes to complete over a period of five days).
When Notman was at his peak, he used wet plate and later dry plate processes. Both these systems allowed numerous prints to be made from a single negative. Earlier Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes where one-off processes. If you wanted a second image, you had to have your portrait taken again. To keep track of his images (some 400,000 in the Montreal studio alone), Notman created some 200 books of sample prints (12 prints to the page), all annotated and serial numbered. Even today, the subject of most of his prints can be identified by the serial number since his negatives, prints and records were donated to McGill's McCord Museum in the 1950s and have been carefully indexed and archived.
Notman's images show mid 1800s Montreal and its strong business class and a rapidly expanding economy. At the time, Montreal was about 60% English speaking ( most of the business and well-to-do class). Notman himself was an astute businessman. For example, he made stereo photographs of the construction of the Victoria bridge in Montreal and created two portfolios carefully housed in custom made maple boxes. The portfolios contained copies of the stereo views plus other Canadian scenes including ten mammoth 18 x 24 inch contact images. The portfolios were intended for Queen Victoria, to be delivered by the Prince of Wales while he was in Montreal for the opening of the Victoria bridge. Notman anticipated this gift would enhance his reputation in the world. It resulted in his prestigious designation of 'Photographer to the Queen' which he had engraved over the door of his Montreal studio!
Wealthy families in England sent second sons to Montreal for military duty prompting a heavy demand for portraits and scenes to send back home. England was fascinated with its rugged colony in North America. While still using the slow labour intensive wet-plate process, Notman was taking 14,000 portraits a year. To attain this volume, he hired staff, Notman took portraits of the wealthy and well known, and leaving his staff to photograph the rest of his clients.
Most of Notman's work recorded success and spectacular landscapes, not the disasters and hardships that could and did befall the unwary and unlucky in the unforgiving climate of Canada. He took portraits of workmen and others who caught his eye and he produced a whole series on native peoples -- another favourite subject in far away England.
Notman's work included recording the opening of the west for the CPR, images that encouraged travel west by railway and attracted settlers to the prairies. Notman was known for his creation of elaborate, carefully coordinated, montages the only means at the time to record social events involving hundreds of people using the slow plates and cameras of the era. Notman recorded each person, in costume and carefully posed, in his studio. The images were suitably re-sized and positioned in the montage.