One of his most important stops was in Montreal in August 1885. He and Sioux chief Sitting Bull posed for photos taken by Montrealer William Notman, the first internationally acclaimed Canadian photographer in the 19th century.
“Sitting Bull is looking off far away — there’s a kind of sadness in his gaze — and William F. Cody is posing, trying to look dignified,” says journalist, author and historian Jean-François Nadeau, whose recently published photography book Montrealers: A Story in Portraits (Juniper Publishing) showcases the shoot.
“This is probably the most famous photo of the myth of the American Wild West, probably the most-reproduced photo of the story of the American West, and it was taken in Montreal!” says Nadeau. He adds that while “Sitting Bull was booed at other stops on this tour, in Montreal he was cheered by audiences.”
Neither Sitting Bull nor Buffalo Bill were Montrealers, of course, but their presence looms large in Nadeau’s book because, he says, “it is one of the most important photos taken in Montreal in the 19th century.”
The image is one of more than 400 black-and-white photographs in Montrealers: A Story in Portraits, published to coincide with Montreal’s 375th anniversary. Nadeau’s beautifully packaged commemorative book includes previously unpublished or unknown photos that depict the lives of Montrealers from the beginnings of photography until 1976. They include work by many masters of the form, such as Gaby (Gabriel Desmarais), Alain Chagnon, Yousuf Karsh, Gabor Szilasi and Notman, as well as work by lesser-known and anonymous photographers.
“Notman was the most celebrated Canadian photographer of his era,” says Nadeau. “He had over 25 studios in North America, he was well organized, his was a big business. But most early photography before the 20th century is of rich people. Photographers (then) were not interested in taking photos of people living in poor neighbourhoods and suburbs — they took photos of what their society permitted them to photograph.”
Complicating matters, Nadeau says, is that in Montreal “we are not (overly) familiar with our past. Montrealers talk a lot about it, but our knowledge isn’t very deep. We also don’t know a lot about photographers here, though we know there were a lot of pictures taken.”
RelatedSo while readers will enjoy portraits of such celebrities as Mordecai Richler, poet Émile Nelligan, actress Geneviève Bujold, conductor/pianist Wilfrid Pelletier and trailblazing female impersonator Guilda, Nadeau hopes his book will also deepen Montrealers’ appreciation for their city and the working-class citizens who put Montreal on the map.
“Yes, I included pictures of well-known people like Leonard Cohen, but those photos are interesting because the photos themselves are special,” Nadeau explains. “It’s not about well-known or famous people, and I’m not interested in monuments, buildings and streets — I am much more interested in ordinary people and their lives, because that gives you a special feeling about what Montreal was really like.
“While these faces do not mirror our (contemporary) lives, you see incarnations of what you could have been, and that further roots us in our city.”
Montrealers: A Story in Portraits also lovingly shines a light on little-known pioneers, such as “Mrs. Fletcher,” who opened her photo shop and studio in Old Montreal in 1841.
“She is important because she is (likely) the first woman in Canada taking pictures, taking portraits, and she’s doing it right here, at Place d’Armes,” Nadeau says. “We don’t know much about her, but we do know that from the beginning of photography in Montreal until now, there were a lot of women photographers. Unfortunately, like other women in history, their contributions have been neglected. In my book I also talk about Kéro, who was everywhere in the 1960s and 1970s, but we don’t talk about her anywhere today. She’s gone, but she was really important.”
The book’s 12 chapters each include an in-depth profile of a Montreal photographer, and photos are grouped under different themes, such as housing, work, nightlife, religion and First Nations, complete with commentary.
All photos are in black and white because, Nadeau says, “before the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York accepted a colour exhibition in 1976, black-and-white photography was considered superior. For instance, if you were a Canadian citizen at the time, you couldn’t get a colour passport photo — black-and-white photos were considered more ‘real’ than colour. Which suggests that what is real is not always the truth.
“If you look at ads for camera companies over the past 50 years, they keep advertising that their photos look more real. But what is real and what is not real? In the 1950s the Kodachrome colour process gave you blasting red and blasting blue. At the time it was considered the best rendition of colour. We know today that’s not true. When we see a photo from that time, we know it was from the ’50s. The same will be said of our photos today. It is always a convention of our time, of what we see.”
In a world where some 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, has the value of photography been diminished?
“There will always be photos that manage to capture a moment in time and stand the test of time,” Nadeau says. “But today everybody thinks they are a photographer and can take timeless photos. People think they take good photos because they get a lot of likes on Facebook. It’s not because you post photos on Instagram that you’re a photographer — it’s the capacity to deliver your own thoughts in your photos that makes you a good photographer.
“Each photo in my book has at its core an idea, a message. People take photos today, but many have nothing to say.”
Six of Jean-François Nadeau’s favourite photos from Montrealers: A Story in Portraits“Basil Zarov was a well-known photographer, really into the arts, and here perfectly captures Huguette Plamondon in her daily work, so well dressed, talking with workers in a slaughterhouse. Gives you an idea of how rough Montreal could be at the time.”
“Montreal asked two city photographers to take photos of buildings that were going to be scrapped. The photographers would number each photo with a little marker, to identify the building, snap the picture, then were off to the next place. But people were still living there. Their photos are incredible views of Montreal; (they) give you a very precise idea of what life was like at the time.”
“One of the kids is black, the other I’m not sure, and they are playing in a poor neighbourhood. We don’t see many photos of children today, because people are wary and there are laws protecting children. You can no longer just take photos of children and publish them. There were also a lot more children in the streets back then. Here, Antoine Desilets captures a simple moment. He always brings a fresh touch to his photos.”
“People were not afraid to let their children play outside. People had large families, so it was nice to stretch outside where there was more space. Montreal was a young city. So you see kids running in the middle of the street everywhere!”
“Such a great shot! Conrad Poirier is working with the lines created by the light. Two young girls are walking, but all the viewer can see are the lines. Poirier’s magical touch here is all in the geometry of the photo.”
This was chosen as the cover image for Montrealers: A Story in Portraits. “You can say from today’s perspective that this is a bad photo — that the woman is out of focus, the focus is behind her, it’s a bit overexposed in front, and by the end it’s a fantastic photo because it gives you a sense of freshness, of speed, of Montreal at its best: Place d’Armes with streetcars and elegant, well-dressed people. It gives you a perfect feel of what Montreal is, or was. Sometimes a picture is not about capturing perfection in the details — it’s the composition, the feel, the idea behind it. This photo is Montreal.”