Paul Larson, Art Express TV program, Burlington, Vermont, USA
After Notman is a rephotographic project (see definition of rephotography on Wikipedia). I have chosen thirty four 19th century Montreal views taken by William Notman and I photographed the same places again, one hundred years later (1999-2001), creating true replicas of the original pictures by use of exactly the same vantage point and capturing the same moment of the year and time of the day in order to reproduce the same angle of light and shadow.
The series was exibited in the McCord Museum of Canadian History, in Montreal, from July 26, 2003 to July 25, 2004. Then it travelled to numerous other venues, until February 2006. In the summer 2010 it was presented as an outdoor exhibition on the McGill College Avenue in Montreal. “After Notman” has been included in the McCord Museum’s “Keys to History” permanent online program. This online exhibition, with many interesting additional features and information is available at museum’s website under the title “Urban life through two lenses”. It has also been placed in the Virtual Museum of Canada. The book “After Notman:Montreal Views-A Century Apart” was published by Firefly, and made the “Globe and Mail” bestsellers list for several weeks. More details about this book can be found in the Books section . Some fragments of the texts I wrote for “After Notman” have been used in the paragraph below.
Some years ago, I came across a book that was the end result of a very ambitious rephotography project. A compelling visual record of how the landscape of the American West had changed between the 1860s and the 1970s, “Second View” effectively refined and defined the concept of rephotography. As a project, it held an immense appeal for me, involving as it did a large-format camera and extensive research using old photographs. I began to cast around for an opportunity to do something similar. Already familiar with the work of turn-of-the-century Montreal photographer William Notman, I decided to visit the Notman Photographic Archives at the McCord Museum of Canadian History. There I looked through hundreds of wonderful cityscapes, street scenes and interiors. Immediately, I knew that I wanted to rephotograph Notman’s images of Montreal.
In 1998 I received a grant for this project from the Canada Council for the Arts. The McCord Museum agreed to lend me their support in realization of the project and I was granted access to their abundant Photographic Archives and received a lot of help from their staff.
This was a great adventure to walk in William Notman’s footsteps, but also a great challenge. Completing my task took three years of hard work. To succeed, I needed a lot of determination, patience and luck, not to mention humility.
First of all, even the initial scouting was like navigating using an old map and partial clues. Some location seemed impossible to find. For example I searched unsuccessfully for almost three years for the location of Notman’s winter scene in Mount Royal Park and finally I found it thanks only to help of Nora Hague, McCord’s archivist. Another place – the interior of the former Montreal Stock Exchange was even more difficult to determine, as the building has since been converted into the Centaur Theatre, and at first no one there recognized the room. One day when I was being shown around we realized that the door we had just come through were the same as those that appeared in the balcony in Notman’s picture. The room had been completely transformed and only the doors remained.
The next step was to determine whether the vantage point was still accessible or not. This was by far the most limiting factor. I had to reject, often with much regret, many wonderful Notman images simply because I knew that rephotographing them would be impossible, as some buildings don’t exist anymore or are hidden behind giant skyscrapers. I often needed to request access to a building interior, rooftop or balcony.
(in the photograph above: After Notman outdoor exhibition on McGill College Avenue, Montreal, Canada, 2010)
My ambition was to make my rephotographic images the perfect replicas of Notman’s photographs. I wanted to replicate Notmanâ€™s precise camera position as closely as possible. It was this possibility that had originally captured my imagination. The search for the magic point in space at which to direct my lens required a great deal of patience; it began with guesswork and progressed to precise calculations. The initial step was to place my camera as accurately as possible using my own best judgment. Then I chose five reference points and marked them on a working Notman print as well as on my first Polaroid test. Every detail in the older photograph could be an important clue, and in many cases I found myself counting windows or bricks on the wall of a building. A series of measurements and the comparison of ratios between the reference points guided adjustments of the cameraâ€™s position. I soon discovered that my initial placement of the camera was almost always wrong. Notman and his crew often set the camera in strange and, to me, awkward positions â€” very close to a wall, for example, or right at the edge of a rooftop.
Details in the Notman photographs such as buds on the trees, leaves or snow on the ground and the clothing people were wearing indicated the general time of year to shoot at outdoor locations. Beyond that, the degree of date precision varied according to the nature of the original. If a Notman was taken on an overcast day, I had a fair amount of leeway, but for photos taken on clear days, the window of opportunity was very limited. Then, in order for the sun to be the right distance from the horizon, I had to take my photo within three or four weeks of the original date. On clear-day shots, it was also necessary to pay close attention to the angle of light and shadow. A winter view of McTavish Avenue, for example, shows a distinct shadow on a tower roof. To re-create this shape, I had to take my photograph within two or three minutes of the original exposure time, with only a few daysâ€™ leeway. Naturally, I was dependent on weather conditions. I could spend two hours setting up my camera and waiting for the sun to move into the right position, only to be stymied by a short stretch of cloud cover. Then I would have to return the next day or, if the weather still did not cooperate, possibly a year later.
I could never be absolutely certain of anything, least of all my vantage point, until I was in the darkroom. Once there, I set the new negative in an enlarger and projected it onto the Notman print. Then, providing I had placed my camera in the correct position, all points of reference would overlap, and I could crop the photo accurately. If not, it was back to square one.
Some might argue that, because of its very strict requirements, rephotography is not an artistic process. It is true that in many cases, I would have preferred to set my camera in a slightly different place or to have a little more freedom to control factors such as lighting. I had an acute sense of how little control I had in comparison with Notman in deciding when to open the shutter or where to place the camera. Nevertheless, these strict guidelines were what made the project challenging and new. In fact, each photograph, with its unique conditions and problems, became something of a game. And when everything worked, the result was incredibly rewarding.