The old proverb that says the eyes are the windows of the soul may never have been more apparent than in two current photography exhibitions in Ottawa this spring. William Notman (1826-1891) and Dave Heath (1931-2016) were both leading portrait photographers in their times and can be experienced at the Museum of History and the National Gallery respectively.
Portrait photography has been around since the very genesis of the science of photography. The daguerreotype gained in popularity from the middle of the 19th century because it required the subject to sit for much less time than a traditional painting (although it was still much longer than today’s portrait photography). The long exposure time and the painterly quality wanted added to the difficulty for the photographers at the time. Technical advances and differing styles have brought many changes in this art/science over time and the two photographers exhibiting are separated by time and equipment but there are still similarities.
William Notman was a Scottish/Canadian businessman who took his hobby and established himself as a flourishing photographer in Montreal. He was the first Canadian photographer to gain international prestige; it was said that Queen Victoria was so pleased with his capturing the construction of the Victoria Bridge that crossed the St. Lawrence River that she named him “Photographer of the Queen”. He grew his business over the following decades and had branches in both Canada and the United States. His innovative photography was held in high esteem and he held patents on some of his techniques that he developed to recreate winter scenes within his studio. Photography was a time-intensive science at this time and he proved himself top in his field. He won medals in exhibitions in Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, London, and Paris and his images are considered iconic Victorian Canada.
Dave Heath was an American documentary/humanist/street photography born in Philadelphia in 1931. Humanist photography came to the forefront after the end of World War II and was most often associated with Europe and France in particular. It was philosophical at heart in its way of capturing the events and social changes that were plentiful at that very tumultuous time. It differs from photojournalism in the way it documents the everyday human experience.
Heath was abandoned by his parents when he very young (4 years old) and spent his childhood in a series of foster homes until the age of 16. He was first inspired by a Life magazine photo essay by Ralph Crane about a foster child and used his self-taught skill to capture the scenes of life around him. He produced his first hand-bound book of photographs in 1952 when he was only 12 years old. Many say that his style illustrates his great need to feel connection to others after many years of alienation and psychological separateness.
He was drafted to fight in the Korean War and came back with a multitude of photos of his fellow soldiers and Korean people at work, rest and play. In 1970, Heath moved to Canada and settled in Toronto; the political situation in the US and the Vietnam War in particular were the impetus to his immigration. He remained in Toronto for the remainder of his life and at Ryerson for a quarter of a century where he taught photography and darkroom techniques.
In an age where practically everyone has access to a camera of one sort or another, it is still something wonderful to see masters in this field. These two men were pioneers in the world of photography and portraiture in particular so if you have even a passing interest, take the time to check these two exhibitions out.