Mathew Brady – a summary

Kat Smutz presents a brief summary on the life of the American Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady

Mathew BradyMathew (with one ‘t’) Brady might well be considered the first photojournalist and has been called “The Father of Photojournalism” for his work in documenting the American Civil War.  Because of the extensive work by Brady and his associates, we know much about the American Civil War and the latter half of the 19th century that might have been otherwise.

Illustrious Americans

Born the youngest of three children in New York some time in 1822, Brady met Louis Jacques Daguerre, pioneer of the daguerreotype, one of the first forms of capturing photographs, in France in 1839, and studied under daguerreotypist Samuel FB Morse, inventor of the Morse code.  By 1844, Brady was already working from his own studio in New York.  A year later, he began exhibiting portraits of famous Americans, including the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and former US president, Andrew Jackson, leading to the publication in 1850 of A Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of his portraits. He went on to photograph eighteen US presidents. In 1849, he opened a studio in Washington, DC, where he met and married Juliet Handy in 1851.

Brady’s work began with daguerreotypes, which were printed on tin, but in the 1850s he began working with ambrotypes, and later, albumen prints that could be reproduced on paper.  It was the albumen prints that were most common among his Civil War work.

Photographing the American Civil War

Mathew Brady American Civil WarWhen the American Civil War erupted in 1861, Brady seized the opportunity.  He requested permission to photograph the war, initially asking Union general, Winfield Scott and then going to the top and asking the president. His permission was written and signed by Abraham Lincoln himself, and Brady was known to carry it about with him most of the time. But, the downside, Lincoln insisted that Brady fund his own work.

“I had to go,” said Brady. “A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.”

It was during the Civil War that Brady, sporting his straw hat, developed his traveling darkroom so that he could take his studio into the field.  But with his eyesight failing, he had to rely increasingly on others and employed more than twenty men, including Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, to go out to the battlefields, each with a darkroom on wheels. The arrangement often ended acrimoniously when Brady refused to allow his individual photographers to take credit for their work. Brady himself spent his time organising his employees and took few photographs himself.

Many of the photos were graphic in their depiction of the aftermath of battles.  Brady’s first exhibition of his war photography, The Dead of Antietam, opened at his New York gallery in 1862. For many Americans, Brady’s exhibition gave them their first look at the realities of war: it brought “home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war,” said the New York Times.

Brady photographed portraits of war generals from either side, both Union, such as Ulysses S Grant and George McClellan, and the Confederate side, including Robert E Lee, and both opposing presidents – Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. “My greatest aim,” said Brady, “has been to advance the art of photography and to make it what I think I have, a great and truthful medium of history.”

Post-War

Brady invested more than $100,000 of his own money and created some 10,000 plates of the war in anticipation of being reimbursed by the government.  But the government refused and he was forced into selling his New York studio and was left bankrupt.  Congress finally granted him $25,000 in 1875.  But Brady was still heavily in debt and his business was failing – following the war, people had no appetite to be reminded of it in such graphic terms.

Having lost his eyesight and following his wife’s death in 1887, Brady became increasingly depressed. Following a streetcar accident, Mathew Brady died a pauper in Presbyterian Hospital in New York on January 15, 1896, aged about 73.

Kat Smutz
Read more about the Civil War in The American Civil War: History In An Hour available in various digital formats and audio.

See also Clara Barton – Civil War nurse and founder of the American Red Cross and health reformer and campaigner, Dorothea Dix.