Profiles in Photography: Mathew Brady

Can you guess the first war where war photography existed? Without having to use a search engine or ask your resident history buff? You might be surprised by the answer. I knew that photography had existed in the 1800s. However, it never really struck me that that meant that there would be photos from the American Civil War, the first war to be photographed by people. I figured that photography from that era was mostly confined to portraits and the like — things that don’t move much. That there are photos of battlefields and the aftermath of them kind of took me by surprise. Not so with History Geek, though. The guy is a relentless cynic.

So, here’s the story of the man often called the father of photojournalism and war photography: Mathew Brady.

Mathew Brady was born in New York in 1822. His parents were Irish immigrants. At age 16, Mathew moved to Saratoga, New York where he met the famous portrait painter William Page. Brady became one of Page’s students and traveled with his teacher around New York learning and perfecting his painting techniques. During his time under Page’s wing, Brady met Page’s teacher, Samuel Morse. Morse had met Louis Daguerre and returned to the US, hyping the new daguerreotype process. Morse became the epicenter of an artistic colony in New York where the members wished to study photography. Morse opened a studio to teach the eager artists and Brady became one of his first students.

Brady moved and opened his own studio in 1844. In 1845, he began to showcase his portraits of famous Americans. In 1849, Brady moved to Washington D.C. where he met the woman he would marry in 1851, Juliet Handy. Brady’s early award-winning images used the daguerreotype process. As ambrotype photography became more popular throughout the 1850s, Brady began working in that medium. In 1850, Brady produced his collection of portraits of prominent Americans called The Gallery of Illustrious Americans. This collection featured the famous portrait of the elderly Andrew Jackson at Hermitage.

Brady soon began offering a service that had become popular under the Parisian photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri: the carte de visite. In doing this, Brady created the first modern advertisement with the ad he placed in the New York Herald offering his services in creating “photographs, ambrotypes and daguerreotypes.”

When the Civil War broke out, the only impact it had on Brady’s business was an increase in demand for his carte de visite among the transient soldiers. However, soon Brady was taken with the idea of chronicling the war itself by photography. He petitioned his friend General Winfield Scott for permission to travel to the battle sites to photograph them. Soon, he appealed to Abraham Lincoln who granted his request with the stipulation that Brady finance the trips himself. His friends tried to dissuade him but Brady was determined to chronicle the war. His first images were from the First Battle of Bull Run.

However, Brady’s eyesight was beginning to fail. He remained behind in Washington D.C. and hired a team of over 20 men to go out and capture the images of the battlefields for him. Each was given a portable darkroom and sent out to capture what they could.

In October 1862, Brady opened an exhibition featuring photographs from the Battle of Antietam in New York. Called “The Dead of Antietam,” his graphic depictions of the dead from the battle were the first time that Americans had truly seen the grisly results of war. Brady hoped to sell the images and plates to the government. However, the government was not interested in buying them after the war and the public, weary of the war, were not interested in them either. Having spent over $100,000 to produce the plates and photographs and with no buyer interested, Brady was forced into bankruptcy. Though he had captured some of the most famous and enduring photographs of the American Civil War, Brady died penniless and in debt in 1896.

— da Bird