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America's First Great Photographer



Rob Hardy


If you think of images of America's Civil War, you are undoubtedly seeing in your mind memories of pictures made by Mathew Brady. Brady was America's first great photographer, and his images of soldiers in camp or soldiers in death are an indelible part of the war's legacy. He was also a photographer to celebrities, and thus played a larger role in documenting the nation's nineteenth century. His photographs are his legacy, for he didn't leave much else. In Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation (Bloomsbury), biographer Robert Wilson tries to fill out missing parts. Even Wilson admits that "Brady is someone we cannot know in whole." He left no journal and few letters. His business records are scant (though Wilson seems to have mined them for all they can tell us). He gave a few interviews late in his life, though their reliability is of course questionable. Many of the thousands of photographs attributed to him might not be by him at all; they might be by his staff or they might simply be someone else's photo he collected. Wilson has gone far by telling the stories behind the photos, as well as can be known, and his biography (the first attempt at a full length life of its subject) provides welcome insight into American society and in particular the war in which Brady's role will always be significant. 




We do not even know when or where Brady was born. He was the son of Irish immigrants, born in upstate New York about 1823. Maybe the family was connected to the tanneries in the area; if so, it would help explain why when he got to New York City, around 1839, Brady began to manufacture leather cases. Some of these were specifically designed to hold daguerreotypes, and this seems to have been his entry into the photo business. By 1844, he had a second business, a daguerreotype studio, and he did well at it (and at an additional studio in Washington). He was the photographer of celebrities. Michael Faraday, Henry James (and son), the Prince of Wales, General Tom Thumb, Jenny Lind, and countless others came to his studio for their portraits. The studios had skylights for illumination, and while Brady might welcome his famous sitters, he would get them up to the top-floor studio and one of his assistants would take the photographs. He had a brilliant business strategy: he would ingratiate himself with the rich and famous by taking their photographs without charge, and then he would display the photos in his gallery. Tourists would pay to see the gallery, and perhaps also for a portrait since they were there anyway. Lincoln was one of Brady's studio subjects, having a picture made on the day of his famous speech at the Cooper Union in 1860. The photo was widely reproduced, and Lincoln is reputed to have said, "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president."  




Brady's portraits, with sitters looking stiff, serious, and important, are a significant part of our nation's visual history, but his war pictures will be the way most people will remember him. (The war was a boon for his portrait business as well, because soldiers of all ranks rushed to have their pictures made to send home before heading into battle.) The Civil War was the first war in which there was any attempt to take photographs under fire. Brady's output was not of battle itself. The photos made by him and his assistants tended to be the same sort that they were making in the studio, with the same poses and arrangements of groups. Where the subject used to stand with the help of an iron support to help keep him steady for the duration of the exposure, in the field he leaned against a tree. Brady's experience in photographing an actual battle is confined to being present at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, and it was a bad enough experience that he did not repeat it. Brady was not the only one to underestimate how harrowing that first battle was going to be, but he left a mysterious photo of himself taken after his return. "To gaze at the photo of Brady returned from Bull Run," writes Wilson, "is to wonder what he could have been thinking when he set off. The white linen duster, the straw hat, the crosstie and white shirt, the gold watch fob hanging below his belt - did he have any idea what war was like? If so, why did he dress for it like a French landscape painter?" In the tumult of the withdrawal from Bull Run, Brady lost all his images, and although he was to send his assistants onto the battlefields thereafter, he himself stayed away from the action. Wilson reflects that this may not have been a great loss. Photography at the time, especially in the field, was technically difficult and could not have captured a battle's action and chaos. This is why the most famous images from the war are of the wounded or the dead, or are placid studies of the landscape after the horrors were over. 




That photographs attributed to Brady might not actually have been by him has long been known, and Wilson tries to explain, sometimes one photo after another, about issues of attribution which were less pointed at the time than they would be now. Brady was the most famous of the photographers at the time, but he was not the only one. During the war, some of his best men split off to make their own way, which has raised the question that perhaps they resented Brady's claiming their work as his own. Wilson doubts that this sort of artistic ownership would have been the issue; more likely is that there was simply a dispute over money. Brady's credit reports, which Wilson has consulted, indicate he was not the best of businessmen, and that even in 1861 there was only one company ready to continue business with him, and that was cash only. Among the few photographs we can be sure Brady arranged are those in which he himself stands (and even then, someone else was working the camera). Wilson refers to this as the "Where's Waldo?" effect, and implies that perhaps this was Brady's way of making sure everyone knew the photograph was indeed his, but also it was a way of showing that he is there for the viewer and that the view is authentic. 




After the war, Brady continued his studio work. He traveled to the former Confederate capital, Richmond, days after Robert E. Lee had surrendered; Lee didn't like to be photographed, and he would not have wanted that particular time to be documented, but Brady, whose charm many of his sitters remarked upon, must have been persuasive. Because of it, we have a memorable portrait of Lee full of dignity and sadness. There were plenty of photographers after the war to compete with Brady, and his enterprises did not do well. He declared bankruptcy and was to die impoverished and socially forgotten; he certainly was not the only artist to wind up in such a way. And Wilson emphasizes throughout Brady as an ambitious artist, one who was ready to master a technically novel medium to bring out a visual encyclopedia of his age. Brady's portraits of famous individuals are often the best representations we have of them, but Wilson shows that he and the others that were at work on battlefields made the most dramatic impact. Once photography had shown what war actually wrought, what Wilson calls "the painterly tradition of romanticizing warfare" could never again be taken seriously.  




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