The studio was a controlled environment: equipment, supplies and sunlight were at hand. Until the commercialization of dry plates in the 1880s, exterior photography was generally confined to the circuit of the professional photographer's travelling wagon (Topley, in fact, used one of these wagons for that purpose in the 1870s). Interior photography, other than in the studio, posed technical challenges. Making large negatives was difficult because the bigger the negative, the longer the exposure time needed. Photographing groups, particularly at night in the interior of a ballroom illuminated by chandeliers, was impossible. Magnesium flares were used for illumination from the 1860s on, but they were dangerous and gave off a lot of smoke.
Thus was born the idea of the composite photograph. The composite was created by the photographer in his studio. He would begin by designing the final desired image of an event, and recreate in his studio the space where the event had taken place. He would then invite the participants to come to his studio, dressed as they had been at the event, and then pose them the way in which they were to appear in the composite. They would also have to pose at a distance from the camera that was more or less the same distance at which they would appear in the final composite. Finally, a skilled artist would draw and paint in the background.
Fancy ball given by the Governor General Lord Dufferin at Rideau Hall on February 23, 1876
This was the procedure done for Governor General Lord Dufferin's fancy ball of February 1876. Attended by the cream of Ottawa society, it was a great success and for 20 years was the standard by which similar balls were measured. Topley advertised for participants to pose in his studio, took the images of individuals in their costumes, arranged several hundred of them as if they were at the ball in Rideau Hall (which was painted in, possibly by Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, a well-known Canadian painter and friend of Topley), and then published the results, hoping that his work would be rewarded financially and would increase his clientele.
Janet Hall, one of those at the ball, recorded in her journal that she was anxious to see the final product: "April Thu[rsday] 20th. Went out in the afternoon. Went to Mr. Topley's Studio but the large photograph of the Fancy Ball was not finished." On June 3, she wrote: "Went to the Notman [Topley] Studio in the afternoon...and saw the picture of the Fancy Ball, it was very good and a curling and some tobogganing scenes for Lord Dufferin, representing life at Rideau Hall."
Unfortunately, the only copy of the ball photograph at Library and Archives Canada is the small version deposited for copyright purposes. The glass plate negative for this, as for those of most other composite photographs, has disappeared. This is perhaps not unexpected given that the negative for Topley's composite of "The Old Guard Dinner" is by far the largest in the collection, measuring about 50 by 90 centimetres.
Composite photograph of the Old Guard dinner held in honour of Sir John A. Macdonald, May 4, 1882
Glass plate negative for the composite image of the Old Guard dinner that measures approximately 50 by 90 centimetres
For detailed, first-person accounts of the ball, the participants and their costumes, see:
"Fancy Dress Ball," The Free Press, Ottawa, February 24, 1876, p. 1.
"The Vice Regal Fancy Ball," The Montreal Herald, February 24, 1876, p. 1.
"Grand Fancy Ball at Government House," The Ottawa Times, February 24, 1876, p. 1.
"Grand Vice - Regal Fete: The Costume Ball at Rideau Hall" The Ottawa Citizen, February 24, 1876, p. 1-4.
"The Fancy Dress Ball," The Weekly Globe, Toronto, February 25, 1876, p. 6.
For further reading on balls held in Canada during the 19th century, see Cynthia Cooper's book Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada's Governors General, 1876-1898, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Hull, Quebec: Goose Lane Editions and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1997.