Brady Photographs

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BRADY PHOTOGRAPHS, collection of photo-graphs taken by Mathew B. Brady and his associates during the Civil War. In addition to portraits of military commanders, they document scenes of the battlefield and daily life in the camp along with houses, hospitals, ships, and railroads. Brady was the first photographer to extensively chronicle historical events and to advance photography beyond the art of portraiture.

Born in 1823 or 1824 in Warren County, New York, and trained as a portrait painter, Brady became interested

in daguerreotypy in 1839. He opened a studio in New York five years later and in 1850 published portraits and biographical sketches of eminent American citizens in his first book, The Gallery of Illustrious Americans. He opened his National Photographic Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1858 and a couple of years later a National Portrait Gallery in New York City. Brady specialized in carte-de-visite portraits of national leaders, politicians, and foreign dignitaries. Among them were Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Edward Albert, prince of Wales.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Brady was at the peak of his success as a portrait photographer. He later claimed to have had a calling to chronicle the Civil War and tried unsuccessfully to photograph the Battle of Bull Run. Brady organized his efforts on a grand scale: employing a large number of photographers, he provided equipment, planned assignments, supervised their activities, and collected and preserved the fragile photographic plates and negatives. He also bought a large number of photographs from freelance battlefield photographers to ensure that his collection would cover all aspects of the war. All of these pictures were published as "Photograph by Brady," which led to frictions with a number of his photographers.

The nearly $100,000 he invested in this project never paid off, although some of his photographs were published in the weeklies Leslie's and Harper's, particularly after Alexander Gardner's photographs of the carnage at Antietam exhibited at Brady's New York gallery attracted large crowds. This was the first time a sizable number of people not involved in the fighting received a visual impression of the terrible reality of battle. The photographic supply firm of E. and H. T. Anthony Company published and sold some of the photographs in exchange for financing his venture, but at the end of the war Brady had to hand over some of his negatives to the company as payment for his debt. These photographs, together with about 2,000 of Gardner's, served as the basis for the ten-volume Photographic History of the Civil War, first published in 1896. This collection was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1943, published in 1961 as the microfilm publication Civil War Photographs, 1861–1865, and in 1991 included in the library's digital online "American Memory." Brady even had to auction his Washington, D.C., studio before the War Department purchased more than 6,000 of his photographs in 1874–1875 for $25,000. They are now located in the National Archives and have been accessible as digital copies since 1998. Another 5,000 negatives were sold by the Anthony Company to a British collector at the turn of the century, a collection that the National Portrait Gallery acquired for the Smithsonian Institution in 1981.


Panzer, Mary. Mathew Brady and the Image of History. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Portrait Gallery, 1997.

———. Mathew Brady. London and New York: Phaidon, 2001.


See alsoPhotography, Military .

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Brady Photographs

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