b. 1823; d. Jan 15, 1896
Though Roger Fenton was the first to document war in photographs, Mathew Brady, who documented the American Civil War (1861-1865), was probably one of the greatest of photographic documentary photographers.
In 1839 Brady met, and became a student to Samuel Morse. That same year he met Louis Daguerre and went back to the United States to capitalise upon the invention of the Daguerreotype, establishing what proved to be a highly successful Gallery.
The New York Illustrated News for 26 March 1851 reads:
"M.B. BRADY, Esq., the eminent daguerreotypist, has lately opened a new saloon for the purposes of his art, in one of the best buildings on Broadway, New York. On the occasion of the first opening, a large number of ladies and gentlemen, comprising many distinguished persons, were invited, and partook of Mr. Brady's hospitality at a splendid dinner. The saloon is one hundred and fifty feet long, finished and furnished in the most costly manner.
Mr. Brady is one of the oldest daguerreotype artists in the country, and one of the most successful, too. He is the author of many valuable improvements connected with the art, his pictures having a world-wide fame for fidelity and elegance."
In 1856 William Gardner, a Scot, joined him, and the company's success became even more marked.
Brady himself did not take many of the photographs which bear his name; he had set himself up as a portrait photographer, and had equipped a number of photographers (twenty, it is said) with what were to become known as "What-is-it?" darkroom wagons to cover the War, with the ruling that his name, as employer, rather than the names of the photographers themselves, would appear on the photographs themselves.
Another photographer in Brady's team was Timothy O'Sullivan, who worked for him until 1863.
Brady's team used was the collodion process, invented by Frederick Scott Archer. The limitations of equipment and materials prevented any action shots, but such people brought back some seven thousand pictures which well portrayed the realities of war. Perhaps the most famous of these is "Harvest of Death" photographed, in fact, by O'Sullivan.
A comment attributed to Brady is "The camera is the eye of history." He clearly saw his mission as that of a photographic historian, and our knowledge of this important era of American history is the better for it. The New York Times, 20 October 1862 commented on the display of pictures taken at Antietam:
"Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it...."
Perhaps they were too real and detailed. The editorial continued:
"These pictures have a terrible distinctness. By the aid of the magnifying-glass, the very features of the slain may be distinguished. We would scarcely choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognise a husband, son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies, that lie ready for the gaping trenches."
Though Brady's work was much admired at the time, he gained little in financial terms; tired of this long war, people did not want reminders of it and whereas Fenton had clearly taken his pictures with an eye to selling them, Brady's were honest - sometimes brutally so, and people no longer wanted his pictures. Brady had invested a fortune into this business, but faced bankruptcy. In 1875 Congress purchased his archive of photographs for $2,840 at public auction, and granted him $25,000, but this was not enough to cover his debts, and he died alone, an alcoholic, and penniless. "No one" he said " will ever know what I went through to secure those negatives. The world can never appreciate it. It changed the whole course of my life."
Though financially his enterprise failed, Mathew Brady had a significant effect on the art of photography, demonstrating that war photographs need not necessarily be purely posed ones. His work represents the first instance of what one may call documentary photography.
From 1845 Brady had embarked upon an ambitious project to photograph many famous people of the time, and in 1850 published "A Gallery of Illustrious Americans. Among his portraits was one of Abraham Lincoln, which was reproduced and circulated during Lincoln's first Presidential campaign. Lincoln himself was to declare later: "Make no mistake, gentlemen, Brady made me President!"
The majority of Brady's vast collection may be seen in the House of Congress in Washington.
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