Collections and Research

Photo: © Laura Dumitriu, 2017

Hélène Samson

Associate Curator, Photography

I was in my twenties when I fell in love with a book of Edward Steichen photographs. I had been more interested in drawing, but these photographs really affected me and made me want to work in the medium myself. Strangely, I was certain this passion for photography would last the rest of my life.


Hélène Samson joined the McCord Museum team in 2006. She is responsible for developing and disseminating the Photography collection, which contains over 2.1 million images, including the Notman Photographic Archives. These photographs document 19th and 20th century society in Canada, primarily in Montreal.

Upon her arrival at the Museum, she organized the symposium Images of Society: Variable Trajectories (September 2007), the first time that the McCord Museum had joined forces with academia to examine the field of photography. Since then, she has curated the Museum’s numerous photography exhibitions, notably the annual outdoor exhibitions on McGill College Avenue that showcase various facets of the collection.

In 2017, she received an award of excellence from the Société des musées du Québec (SMQ) for the exhibition Notman, A Visionary Photographer, along with the Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research – Cultural Heritage from the Canadian Museums Association (CMA) for the accompanying exhibition catalogue published under her direction.

Hélène Samson earned a PhD in art history from Université de Montréal, receiving a doctoral fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Her dissertation examined the influence of identity photography on portraiture from the 1980s to 2000s. She also graduated from the University of Ottawa Department of Visual Arts with a specialization in photography.

At the same time, she did graduate studies in experimental psychology at the University of Ottawa and the University of Nice. After living in France for several years, she made a major shift and reoriented her work towards art history and photography. Her current interest in portrait photography as a means of expressing narrative identity is inspired by her background in both psychology and photography, and the McCord Museum’s photography collection offers an exceptional research opportunity.


Selected Publications

“In the Studio with Notman. The Rhetoric of Decor.” In Marisa Portolese, Dans le Studio avec Notman/In the Studio with Notman, 11–13. Montreal, McCord Museum, 2018.

“Rudolph Edse: Cloistered Feeling.” In Rudolph Edse: Une autobiographie involontaire/An Unintentional Autobiography, by Michel Campeau, 87–91. Paris; Montreal: Les éditions Loco; McCord Museum, 2018.

“Exhibiting Notman.” Ciel Variable, no. 105 (Winter 2017): 103–106.

“Notman: A Visionary Photographer.” In Notman: A Visionary Photographer, edited by Hélène Samson and Suzanne Sauvage, 24–27. Paris; Montreal: Hazan; McCord Museum, 2016.
Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research – Cultural Heritage from the Canadian Museums Association (CMA).

“The Art of Photography According to Notman.” In Notman: A Visionary Photographer, edited by Hélène Samson and Suzanne Sauvage, 68–73. Paris; Montreal: Hazan; McCord Museum, 2016.
Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research – Cultural Heritage from the Canadian Museums Association (CMA).

“Dans les marges du présent, les trésors de l’avenir. Enjeux de valeur dans la collecte des photographies.” In Collecting Knowledge: New Dialogues on McCord Museum Collections/À la recherche du savoir : Nouveaux échanges sur les collections du Musée McCord, edited by Joanne Burgess, Cynthia Cooper, Céline Widmer and Natasha Zwarich, 115–132. Montreal: Éditions MultiMondes, 2015.

“Le livre devrait conjuguer élégance et distinction [re: Portrait of a Period, edited by J. Russell Harper and Stanley Triggs, 1967].” In Livres québécois remarquables du XXe siècle, edited by Claude Corbo, 222–235. Montreal: Presses de l’Université du Québec; Bibliothèque et Archives nationales, 2012.

“The Sublimity of Jodice.” In Mimmo Jodice. Sublime Cities/Villes sublimes, 29–33. Montreal: McCord Museum, 2012.

“Notman reçoit.” Continuité, no. 122 (Fall 2009): 45–49.

“Figuration et esthétique de l’identité génétique : autour de l’Autoportrait génétique de Gary Schneider.” RACAR Revue d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review 33, no. 1–2 (2008): 66–74.

“Resemblance and Identification: The Paradox of Gary Schneider’s Genetic Self-Portrait.” In Precarious Visualities: New Perspectives on Identification in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, edited by Olivier Asselin, Johanne Lamoureux and Christine Ross, 380–391. Montreal; Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.

“Photogénique.” In Dictionnaire du corps, edited by Michela Marzano, 711–713. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2007.

Selected Presentations

“Le soi colonial dans la photographie du 19e siècle,” Regards actuels sur l’art et l’architecture du 19e siècle, RAA19/UQAM, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, September 22, 2017.

“’Not to be put in’. Looking further into the Notman Collection,” Speaking of Photography, Faculty of Fine Arts, Concordia University, Montreal, November 18, 2016.

“Artiste en résidence au Musée McCord : le cas de Kent Monkman,” Collections: They’re Back! Groupe de recherche et réflexion CIÉCO (Collections et impératif événementiel/The Convulsive Collections), Musée d’art de Joliette, March 19, 2016.

Photographie et connaissance. Enjeux d’observation et de collecte,” Collecting Knowledge: New Dialogues on McCord Museum Collections, Montréal, Dynamic HubSpace: History, Heritage, Future and the McCord Museum, Montreal, November 7–9, 2013.

“’Travels by W.W. Ogilvie 1876-68′. L’histoire d’un album photographique et de son acquisition par les Archives photographiques Notman,” Photographie, Mobilités, Intermédialités, Université de Montréal, April 8–9, 2011.

“Seeing in Sites,” Travelling Photography, Association of Graduate Students in Art History, Concordia University, Montreal, March 12, 2010.

“Souvenirs d’ici. Création de liens durables avec la communauté chinoise de Montréal,” Preserving and Promoting: Black Cultural Heritage in Canada, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, February 5, 2009.

“Guerre d’Espagne et photographie,” Norman Bethune and Visual Culture(s), Concordia University, Montreal, October 18, 2008.

“Configurations : une exposition hypermoderne?” Images of Society: Variable Trajectories, McCord Museum, Montreal, September 20, 2007.

“Le photogénique. Exploration conceptuelle,” Images et figures du corps en photographie : photographie et corps politique IV, Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS), Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, May 7–8, 2007.

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