Matthew B Brady
At a time when America was hungry for war pictures, photographer Mathew B Brady carried out a vast documentation of the Civil War. Chandni Gajria revisits this forgotten tale.
When I started studying the work and reading about Mathew B Brady, there were a few facts that I found rather shocking. When the American Civil War began in1861, Brady was perhaps the only established photographer who brought scenes from the battlefield, to the people of America. How, then, did such a reputed photographer die in poverty, in a charity ward, all alone?
A Beginning in New York
“How old are you, Mr Brady?” George Alfred Townsend, a well known war correspondent put forth to the photographer. Brady responded humorously by saying, “Never ask that of a lady or a photographer; they are sensitive. I will tell you, for fear you might find it out, that I go back to near 1823–24; that my birthplace was Warren County, NY, in the woods about Lake George, and that my father was an Irish man.” Not much is written or known about Brady’s childhood, but by the early 1840s, the 16-year-old moved to New York as a jewellery case manufacturer. Around the same time, photography was introduced for the first time. Brady learnt the art of making daguerreotypes from the artist Samuel Morse, who owned a learning centre for photography in the city. The Gallery Of Illustrious Americans By the late 1840s, Brady had mastered the daguerreotype process well enough to start his own studio and establish it as a gallery. He was now working towards creating a vast collection of portraits of prominent American personalities. This collection was titled The Gallery Of Illustrious Americans, and included the now famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln, who at the time was just an Illinois politician. Lincoln later used Brady’s portrait which was made at the time of his famous Cooper Union speech in 1861, in his presidential campaign. Upon winning the campaign, Lincoln is reported to have said to his friends, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President.”
Loss of Eyesight, Not Vision
An article published in The Photographic Art Journal in1851 praised Brady’s work while revealing the condition of his deteriorating eyesight “Mr Brady is not operating himself, a failing eyesight precluding the possibility of his using the camera with any certainty. But he is an excellent artist nevertheless, understands his business perfectly, and gathers about him, the finest talent to be found. ” Deteriorating eyesight made Brady depend upon his assistants, but the photographer in him remained dominant.
Birth of a War Photographer
Brady witnessed the first major battle of the American Civil War called the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Sources say that he got so involved in making pictures that he was nearly captured by the enemies. A magazine called Brady ‘an irrepressible photographer who, like the war horse, sniffs the battle from afar’. The experience at the Battle of Bull Run left him feeling the need to document the conflict on a larger scale. And so, President Lincoln granted him the permission on the condition that he would have to fund the project on his own. Though Brady did not document all of the war, he sent 23 of his assistants on to the field with a travelling darkroom for on-the-spot results. Much of what is known about the Civil War is because of these visuals which portrayed what went on at the battlefield.
“ Never ask that of a lady or a photographer; they are sensitive.” –Mathew Brady, when asked about his age.
Silence and Solitude
In1862, Brady displayed shocking images from the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. But, he overestimated the commercial value of these photos. The conflict ended and so did the demand for his war photographs. Having spent all his savings to fund the coverage, Brady expected the government to purchase the pictures from him, but he was let down when the refusal came in. He sold his gallery and eventually went bankrupt. In the end, his financial situation and the death of his wife turned him into an alcoholic. Today, Mathew B Brady’s photographs are a pictorial reference of the American Civil War. It is hard to believe that an artist whose name was once known to every American, died penniless.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Better Photography.
Tags: Chandni Gajria, better photography, May 2012, Mathew B Brady, Great Masters