History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. ~Winston Churchill

22 March, 2014

Composite Portraits

We all know how difficult it is to get a good group portrait-- the more people there are, the less chance there is of everyone looking nice, or even just not blinking. When you add in the desire for a nice composition, well-lit, with a variety of engaging poses, there doesn't seem much solution except photoshop. 

19th century photographers agreed. Why try to get a good group portrait when you can crop together a bunch of nice portraits taken separately? So some of them--most notably Montreal photographer William Notman-- did exactly that. Notman would taken dozens of individual, studio portraits, then cut each figure out and paste them onto a painted backdrop. More paint was used to get light and shadow and contrast just right. At this point, the image would look like this, and be very large (I've been lucky enough to see examples in person; the ones with dozens or more figures are easily 3 by 6 feet). This creation would then be photographed itself, so smaller, more "photographic" images could be printed and given to all the persons involved. (The Montreal Musee McCord Museum, home to Notman's archive, has a much more detailed write-up, if you are interested). 

The final results are a strange sort of hybrid, somewhere between photograph and painting, almost uncannily in their resistance of categorization. Though these images have been digitized in black-and-white, most of the photographs are albumen prints-- dark purple and cream when first printed, usually brown and yellow today, after deterioration (as can be seen in the final image). 

Bute House skating party, Montreal, 1873. Source

Royal Scots D Company, Montreal, 1884. Source

Railway Engineering Department staff, 1896 (image copied 1922). Source

Curling on the St. Lawrence, Montreal, 1878. Source

Group of snowshoers, Montreal, about 1880. Source

Grand Trunk Railway Engineering Department, 1877. Source

Montreal College student group, 1877. Source

Jonathan Hodgson's family, 1880. Source

Two women curling, 1876. Source

Tobogganing race, Montreal, 1886. Source

Toboggan crash, 1889. Source

St. Georges Snowshoe Club at the gates of McGill University, Montreal, 1880. Source

Philip Simpson Ross family, 1904. Source

Skating carnival, Montreal, 1881. Source

Red Cap snowshoe club, Halifax, NS, 1888. Source

A tobagganing group, 1876. Source


Ladies in St. Alban's, Vermont, 1873. Source

Montreal Snowshoe Club, Mount Royal, Montreal, 1877. Source


Ana said...

I love that in-between image :D !

(The winter fairytale one is missing the source link.)

Anna said...

I know, so cool eh? It's too bad neither Musee McCord nor Library and Archives Canada have any of theirs digitized, I wish I could have included some properly!

Oops, thank you for noticing! No caption either, tsk tsk. Fixed! :)

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