Mathew Brady: The American Civil War Photographer

On the 15th of January 1896, Mathew Brady died in the charity ward of the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. He was one of the most prolific American photographers at the time, yet he died in poverty and in a state of deep depression brought on him by the project he is nowadays most celebrated for – his photographic documentation of the American Civil War. Brady was among the first photographers to fully recognize the camera’s potential for creating a permanent record of important historical events. But he is also famous for his portraits, which nowadays serve as an important illustration of the 19th century American society.   

51rh4yeoWqL._SX342_Brady started his adventure with photography in the early 1840s as a student of Samuel Morse – an established photographer, who, thanks to a direct acquaintance with Louis Jacques Daguerre, was able to introduce daguerreotypes into America. Encouraged by spreading popularity of the new medium, Brady opened his own studios – in 1844 in New York and in 1849 in Washington, D.C.. By 1845 he began to exhibit his portraits of famous Americans, among them – Andrew Jackson, David Dixon Porter, Walt Whitman or Abraham Lincoln. One of the portraits of Lincoln was later used for the $5 bill and the Lincoln penny. His early images were mostly daguerreotypes, but in the 1850s, the growing popularity of ambrotype photography enabled production of paper photographs and eventually the carte de visite – small pictures of the size of a visiting card. This meant an increased demand for photographs. And with the phantom of the Civil War hanging in the air, having a little portrait of those who might be lost to war seemed like a good idea. Brady spotted the extra business potential and marketed this idea by running an ad in The New York Daily Tribune saying: “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

At the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, Brady came up with another idea of creating a visual record of the conflict. It seems that this was exactly what the public wanted. Especially after the epic Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, the written description of the events did not seem fully satisfying. Brady provided for this specific public demand, but the effort he and his collaborators had to put into the whole enterprise is nowadays difficult to imagine, and thus it is worth remembering.

Modern-day war correspondents or photographers usually need a digital camera and a few memory cards. But during the Civil War it was all much more complicated. First of all, photographers would be sent into the battlefield with specially equipped wagons. “Soldiers had quizzed Brady and other photographers about them. They had asked “What is it?” so many times that they soon came to be known as “what-is-it wagons.” Such specially equipped vehicles were a necessity for photographers in the field. In those days, capturing subjects outdoors in full daylight required much more than just a camera and a tripod to rest it on. Practical, reliable cameras had existed for only a few years. Large and bulky by today’s standards, they used rectangular glass plates that were coated with a wet, sticky mixture of chemicals and cotton. To take a photo, a photographer first placed a still-wet plate in a plate holder. He attached it to the back of the camera, removed a cover, aimed the lens at the subject, and exposed the plate to the light for several seconds. To develop the images 51vvq4PRIKLthat had formed on the plates, photographers needed to handle them in completely dark chambers… But devising a workable mobile darkroom for taking photos on location was a major challenge… To keep the darkrooms as light-tight as possible, Brady wrapped heavy sheets of canvas around the wagon’s wooden walls. But in solving one problem, he had created another. The darkrooms were airtight as well as light-tight. So they became extremely hot inside during the summer. Even worse, they reeked of chemicals, and breathing them caused Brady and his assistants to grow light-headed. While they were developing photos, they had to take breaks and rush outside for fresh air. But during battles the air outside could be just as bad. Instead of chemicals it reeked death.” (Don Nardo, Civil War Witness: Mathew Brady’s Photos Reveal the Horrors of War).

Despite his high hopes, this extremely tough and dangerous project did not bring Brady the anticipated financial success. For over 10,000 plates created during the war, Brady had to pay from his own pocket around $100,000. After the end of the war the government was no longer interested in buying these plates from him. This forced Brady to sell his New York studio and go into bankruptcy. He died completely broke and lonely, not realising that one day his pictures would become an extremely significant part of American heritage.

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