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William Notman's life and work on display at McCord Museum

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--November 2, 2016.


What was it like to walk the streets of Sainte-Catherine Street back in 1860?

A new exhibit at the McCord Museum on the life and work of celebrated photographer William Notman is a glimpse into Montreal and many parts of Canada in the 19th century.

Notman, A Visionary Photographer is a part of the celebrations for Montreal's 375th anniversary and the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.

Three generations of the Notman family from across Canada and the U.S. have gathered in Montreal for the opening of the exhibit this Friday, with some of them meeting for the first time.

Notman's great-great-granddaughter, Bente Christensen, rallied the Notman family last year to help pay to restore an old Notman & Company sign in time for the exhibit.

"What a legacy to have, it's surreal," says Christensen. "We all have bits and pieces of William Notman's photos, but [it's incredible] to be able to share it and bring it out and share it with my grandchildren and to pass this onto a young generation."

William Notman was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1826 and moved to Montreal – or what was known as the New World at the time – in 1856. Notman began taking portraits of some of the city's wealthiest people, and it wasn't long before he opened his own studio on Bleury Street.

He was as much a great photographer as he was a businessman and entrepreneur. He knew how to seize an opportunity.

Notman was awarded a contract to photograph the final stages of the construction of the Victoria Bridge. He also began capturing landscapes in Montreal and across Canada, documenting the colonization across the country from the 1860s to the early 1900s.

Notman was the first Canadian photographer to obtain an international reputation. He was pushing boundaries and using new tenchnology like stereography, where viewers could see photographs in three-dimensions.

Notman also viewed photography as art, which was not acknowledged until the 20th century. He experimented with paint and photography, creating composite works that are now considered masterpieces. He cut out dozens of portraits and glued them side by side, to create a large group, and had artists paint on top.

Jill Notman-Colpitts, Notman's great-great-granddaughter, flew in from Whistler, B.C. for the exhibit. She says her father used to take her and her children to see the Notman archives at the McCord Museum.

"It's better than any history lesson you could have in any class," says Notman-Colpitts.

"It's amazing to know your descendant was such a part of the early days here, archiving the history of Montreal, let alone the whole country."

Notman, A Visionary Photographer opens at the McCord Museum on Friday, and runs until March.