Civil War photographer
His studio produced many of the war's
most famous photographs
Mathew Brady is the most famous of the many American photographers who documented the Civil War in pictures. He did not personally take many of the photographs that made him famous. Instead, failing eyesight forced him to hire teams of photographers to take care of the actual camera work. But it was Brady who led the effort to use photography as a way of recording the events of the Civil War for future generations. "[Mathew Brady] would serve history and country," wrote Carl Sandburg in The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln. "He would prove what photography could do by telling what neither the tongues nor the letters of soldiers could tell of troops in camp, on the march, or mute and bullet-riddled on the ground."
Child of immigrants
Mathew Brady was born around 1823 to Irish immigrants who settled in New York state in the early 1820s. The youngest of five children, Brady spent his early years working on the family farm. It was during his midteens that Brady first began to suffer from problems with his eyesight. This condition became steadily worse as he grew older.
In 1839, Brady moved to New York City, where he worked as a department store clerk. He spent much of his free time, however, learning about the fascinating new world of photography. Over the previous few years, the discoveries of inventors Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1789–1851) and Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) had made it possible to take the first photographs. The process of creating these early photographs—called daguerreotypes in honor of Louis Daguerre—was very primitive. For example, cameras were far too heavy to be held by hand, photographic subjects had to remain still for fifteen seconds or more to avoid looking blurry, and processing of pictures required cumbersome (difficult to handle) chemicals and equipment.
Master of photography
Despite these factors, however, people viewed photography as an exciting new invention. Determined to build a career out of this new technology, Brady studied how to be a photographer and opened his own studio in New York in 1844. The high quality of his work quickly attracted attention around the city. In 1845, he won two first prizes in a daguerreotype competition held by the American Institute of the City of New York. A year later the magazine Spirit of the Times hailed his photography as "brilliantly clear and beautiful."
By the late 1840s, Brady's reputation for excellence had made him the preferred portrait photographer of the rich and famous. His subjects ranged from politicians like President Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) and Senator John Calhoun (1782–1850) to such celebrities as writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) and circus showman Phineas T. Barnum (1810–1891). In 1851, Brady published a book of photographs called Gallery of Illustrious Americans that further cemented his reputation as one of the nation's master photographers. He also married Julia Handy, the daughter of a prominent Maryland lawyer, around this time.
In 1853, Brady opened a new studio in New York, even though his eyesight had become so bad that he rarely took photographs himself. Instead, he relied on talented assistants to take portraits and other pictures. In 1856, Brady hired Alexander Gardner (1821–1882) to work for him. Gardner proved to be a valuable employee. A talented and well-educated photographic artist, he assisted Brady as he made the transition from daguerreotype to the wet-plate process, a new photographic technology that used negatives to produce multiple copies of pictures. This process became the basis for all modern photography.
In the late 1850s, Brady decided to open another studio in Washington. But instead of managing the new studio—called the National Photographic Art Gallery—himself, he remained in New York and sent Gardner to manage it. Gardner managed the new studio with great skill. He and other photographers in the Washington studio took all the pictures that were produced there, but Brady still insisted that all of the photos be credited to him. This rule also was applied in Brady's New York studio. This policy gave people the false impression that Brady was the one who was taking all the great photographs produced in his studios, and it eventually caused bitter splits between the studio owner and some of his most talented camera operators.
Brady and Lincoln
In 1860, Brady's studio took several portraits of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) that were used in his presidential campaign. The two men established a friendly relationship. After Lincoln won the 1860 election, Brady and his assistants received special status as semiofficial photographers to the White House. In addition to taking pictures of Lincoln's family, friends, and cabinet members, they also took many portraits of the president himself. Alexander Gardner alone took more than thirty photographs of Lincoln during his presidency.
When the Civil War between the North and South began in April 1861, Brady's studios were flooded with Northern soldiers who wanted to leave pictures with their loved ones before heading off to war. Brady was inspired by the sight of these young men in uniform. He believed that photographs could provide a powerful historical record of the conflict. As a result, Brady decided that he wanted to accompany the Union Army as it marched against the soldiers of the Confederacy. "A spirit in my feet said, 'Go!' and I went," Brady later said.
First, Brady obtained permission from Lincoln to accompany Union troops into the field. He then worked with his assistants to address the many challenges of taking photographs outside of a studio setting. The photographers eventually modified a wagon so that it could serve as a sort of portable darkroom, complete with shelves and drawers for photographic chemicals, lenses, cameras, and other equipment.
Brady at the First Battle of Bull Run
In July 1861, Brady and a team of assistants accompanied a Union army led by General Irvin McDowell (1818–1885) as it marched out of Washington. Their destination was a small village in Virginia called Manassas, located about thirty miles southwest of the capital, where a Confederate army had gathered.
Many Northerners assumed that the Civil War would be over in a matter of a few months. They believed that Union forces were vastly superior to the Confederate Army. As a result, they viewed the upcoming battle at Manassas as a certain victory that would begin the process of restoring the rebellious Confederate states to the Union. Northern confidence in victory was so high that hundreds of Washingtonians packed up picnic baskets and followed the Union troops to Manassas as if they were going to a show.
But when the Union and Confederate armies met at Manassas in the first major battle of the Civil War, the Southern army registered a decisive victory. The battle—known in the North as the First Battle of Bull Run in recognition of nearby Bull Run Creek—ended in a disastrous retreat for the North, as soldiers and civilians alike fled back to Washington in a frightened herd. Brady's cameramen took some pictures of the chaotic scene, but all of their pictures were ruined when the panicked crowd knocked his wagon over.
Antietam photographs shock the North
Brady's first journey onto the battlefield had not gone as he had hoped. But his determination to produce a photographic record of the war remained strong. As Northerners adjusted to the reality that the war might last for quite awhile, Brady organized his photographers into twoman teams that accompanied Union armies all around the country.
One of these teams, comprised of Alexander Gardner and James Gibson, accompanied the Union army commanded by General George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry) when it clashed in September 1862 with a large rebel force led by Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry). This one-day struggle along Antietam Creek outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland, produced more than twenty-six thousand casualties, making it the single bloodiest day in American military history.
The Battle of Antietam (known in the South as the Battle of Sharpsburg) forced Lee to discard his plans to invade the North. Instead, he retreated back into Virginia to regroup. In the meantime, Gardner and Gibson wandered over the Antietam battlefield. Their photographs of the dead soldiers who lay scattered across the countryside provided vivid evidence of the toll that the war was taking on both sides.
When Brady saw the photographs that Gardner and Gibson had taken, he immediately made plans to exhibit them at his studio in New York. The photographs created excitement throughout the city. Citizens rushed to the gallery to see the horrible but powerful pictures for themselves. "Mr. Mathew Brady has done something to bring us the terrible reality and earnestness of the war," commented the New York Times. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along our streets, he has done something very like it."
Brady struggles with mounting debts
Shortly after taking the photographs at Antietam, Gardner left Brady and started his own studio. Gardner had argued with Brady over business issues for some time. In addition, he was tired of giving credit to Brady for photographs that he himself had taken. Gardner's departure proved to be a major blow to Brady. His studios suffered financially in Gardner's absence, and his former assistant quickly emerged as a major competitor. In fact, Gardner was commonly viewed as Washington's leading photographer by the end of the Civil War.
By 1864, Brady's studios were in serious financial trouble. His photographers continued to follow Union armies as they marched across the South, but the cost of outfitting his teams of photographers was huge. In addition, Brady overestimated the money he could make on his Civil War photographs. Demand for his photographs increased somewhat after the Confederacy surrendered in the spring of 1865, but the increased income was not enough to cover his many debts. In 1868, Brady was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Despite his financial problems, Brady managed to re-open a modest studio in Washington. In 1875, Brady received a financial boost when the U.S. government agreed to purchase many of the photographs that his studios had accumulated during the war. His reputation as a portrait photographer also brought him a steady income for several years. Famous figures like women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931), and Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (1808–1873) all traveled to Brady's studio for portraits during the 1870s. But growing health problems and financial difficulties finally forced Brady to close his studio in 1881.
During the last fifteen years of his life, Brady scraped together a living from occasional photography work. His wife died in 1887, but he remained in Washington rather than return to his native New York. One woman who knew Brady during this period described him as a "sad little man." Brady entertained the woman with "tales of his glory days as the prince of New York photographer and his exploits during the Civil War," wrote George Sullivan in Mathew Brady: His Life and Photographs. "[But] he also complained to her of his financial woes, his poor health, and loneliness, which had deepened since the death of his wife."
In the mid-1890s, Brady returned to New York, where he moved into a small apartment. In 1895, a Civil War veterans' group asked Brady to prepare a retrospective (review of past work) of his wartime photographs for display at New York's Carnegie Hall. The honor excited Brady, who had become a largely forgotten figure. But in late 1895, he was hospitalized with kidney problems. Brady died on January 15, 1896, two weeks before his scheduled exhibition at Carnegie Hall.
By the time Brady died, most Americans had forgotten how important his activities were in creating a photographic record of the Civil War. Today, however, many of the photographs produced by Brady and his assistants rank among the most famous in American history. Many of them are used in history books about the war, and they form one of the most highly prized collections in the Library of Congress.
Where to Learn More
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Photographing History: The Career of Mathew Brady. New York: Putnam, 1977.
Kunhardt, Dorothy Meserve, and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. Mathew Brady and His World. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1977.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Mathew Brady's Portraits. [Online] http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/brady/index2.html (accessed on October 8, 1999).
Panzer, Mary. Mathew Brady and the Image of History. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.
Sullivan, George. Mathew Brady: His Life and Photographs. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1994.
Van Steenwyk, Elizabeth. Mathew Brady: Civil War Photographer. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 1997.