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The Topley Studio stamp on the reverse of a printed photograph showing the Governor General’s patronage of Topley, Ottawa, January 1884

The Topley Studio stamp on the reverse of a photograph of Ida Burpee advertising the Governor General’s patronage of Topley
January 1884


ARCHIVED - William James Topley:
Reflections on a Capital Photographer

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The Studio

By Andrew Rodger, Library and Archives Canada

Photograph of the Notman Studio stamp, W.J. Topley, Proprietor. Printed on the reverse side of a card with a published  photograph, Ottawa, before 18755

The Notman Studio stamp on the reverse of a printed photograph
Before 1875


In the mid-1860s, Montréal photographer William Notman decided to expand his business to other cities. His first branch studio was established in Ottawa, which had become the nation's capital when the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867. Perhaps Notman chose Ottawa because it was to be the seat of the country's federal government-the branch office was built directly across the street from the Parliament Buildings.

The man Notman chose to manage his Ottawa branch was William James Topley, who was only 22 years old when the studio opened in January 1868. Topley had already worked at least two years as a professional photographer in Aylmer, Quebec, before moving to Montréal in 1864, where he worked at apprentice wages for the Notman studio. Not only was Topley a good photographer, but he also had a keen entrepreneurial spirit. In 1872 he bought Notman's Ottawa branch and operated it as a franchise. Then, in 1875, he opened a studio under his own name-a name that would be known on the Ottawa scene until September 1923, when the studio closed.

Photograph of the public reception area of the Notman Studio, Wellington Street, Ottawa, between 1868 and 1872

The Notman Studio, Wellington Street
Between 1868 and 1872


During a half-century of operation, the Topley Studio produced hundreds of thousands of images-of the famous and unknown, royalty as well as commoners, of Ottawa as it developed, and of much of the rest of Canada. That half-century saw radical changes in the way photographs were produced. At the beginning of William Topley's career, the process was sufficiently complicated that only a professional photographer could make photographs. The controlled environment of a studio was required to carry out the laborious coating, sensitizing and developing of each glass plate negative in the photographic process. By the time the Topley Studio closed in 1923, it was catering largely to the amateur photographer who took "snapshots" by simply pressing the button on a camera-which was likely purchased at Topley's-and then returned the film to the studio to have it developed and prints made.

Photograph of the public reception area of the Topley Studio, probably 104 Sparks Street, Ottawa, between 1878 and 1888

The public reception area of the Topley Studio, probably 104 Sparks Street
Between 1878 and 1888


When the Topley Studio first opened, photographs printed in books, magazines and newspapers were unknown. Black and white photographic materials had difficulty in accurately capturing the entire spectrum of light. When the studio closed in 1923, television was in an experimental stage, and colour products had been commercially available for almost two decades.