Mathew Brady was one the most famous photographers of the 19th century and is remembered for photographs of the Civil War as well as for classic studio portraits of prominent Americans.
Brady was a true photographic pioneer, yet many of the Civil War photographs for which he was credited at the time were actually taken by his employees.
And although confusion persists about which photographs Brady actually took himself, there is no denying that Brady was a giant of 19th century photography.
Some of Brady's accomplishments:
- Began to shoot Daguerreotypes in the early 1840s in New York City.
- Began "The Gallery of Illustrious Americans" in 1845.
- Opened a Washington, D.C., Daguerreotype gallery in 1847.
- Won awards for his Daguerreotypes at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.
- Switched to the wet plate method of photography in the 1850s.
- Photographed Abraham Lincoln before his address at Cooper Union in New York City.
- Traveled to the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.
- Photographed scenes following the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.
Early Life of Mathew Brady
Mathew Brady's early life is shrouded in mystery. He claimed to have been born in 1823 or 1824, in Warren County, New York. He settled in New York City while in his late teens.
Brady became interested in the Daguerreotype process, which became known to the world in 1839. And it is suspected Brady may have been taught the process in the early 1840s by artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, who had learned it in Paris from inventor Louis Daguerre.
In 1844 Brady opened a studio and Daguerreotype gallery in New York City. Patrons could view images, or even have their portrait taken.
Mathew Brady and the Daguerreotype Business
A year before Brady opened his own Daguerreotype studio, another photographer, Edward Anthony, began making Daguerreotypes of prominent Americans. An advertisement for Anthony's establishment in New York City invited the public to visit and view images of famous people of the day ranging from politician Henry Clay to artist John James Audubon to Archbishop John Hughes of New York City.
Brady took up the idea of making Daguerreotypes of the famous, and began "The Gallery of Illustrious Americans" in 1845. He would get prominent people to pose for his camera with the offer of a free Daguerreotype, and he could then display the image in his gallery and sell copies to the public.
The project brought in a lot of business. People would visit Brady's gallery to see the images of the famous, and they could also pay to have their own image captured by Brady's camera. For centuries only the wealthiest people could have pictures painted of themselves, but by the late 1840s anyone with a few dollars to spend could pose for a portrait.
Mathew Brady and the Civil War
After winning awards for Daguerreotypes he exhibited in London at the Great Exhibition of 1851, Brady, like most commercial photographers, made the switch to the newer wet plate method. The new process, which used chemicals spread on a glass plate for a negative, was easier to use than the Daguerreotype method, though it still required considerable skill and equipment.
In the late 1850s Alexander Gardner arrived in America and began working for Brady, and the two men were ideally situated when the Civil War began. As the secession crisis turned into war, the Brady studios in New York City and Washington, D.C., did a booming business as soldiers posed for portraits in their new uniforms.
When the Union Army marched into Virginia in July 1861, Mathew Brady followed along, and he was present at the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Accounts of his presence at the battle are fragmentary, and there is no evidence that he actually took any photographs that day.
Brady returned to Washington the next day, having been part of the chaotic Union retreat from the battlefield. He was photographed in his Washington studio wearing the long white coat he'd worn at Bull Run, with a caption on the photo saying it had been taken the day after the battle. So he apparently wanted to promote himself as a Civil War photographer, even if his day at Bull Run had produced no images.
Mathew Brady and Gardner's Photographs of Antietam
Brady did organize his employees to begin photographing the war. Perhaps the greatest single achievement of his company during the war came in September 1862, when Alexander Gardner, who was still working for Brady, took startling photographs of dead Confederates on the field following the Battle of Antietam.
Gardner's photographs at Antietam were displayed at Brady's gallery in New York City and became a sensation. The New York Times reviewed the exhibition and gave Brady great credit for the photographs, without mentioning that they had actually been shot by Alexander Gardner.
The common practice at that time was to credit the owner of a photographic business, not the person who actually operated the camera and composed the photograph. So the Antietam photographs were often credited to Brady; some books well into the 20th century mistakenly claimed Brady had been the photographer at Antietam.
Alexander Gardner split from Brady at some point before the summer of 1863, perhaps because he didn't appreciate his photographs being attributed to Brady. And by the end of the war Gardner had become known as the leading photographer In Washington.
Brady's Reputation and the Civil War
While a number of photographs taken by his employees were attributed to Brady, it is known that he photographed scenes at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, following the epic battle in early July 1863. His photograph of John Burns, an elderly citizen of Gettysburg who participated in the battle, helped create an enduring legend.
Though Brady did not personally specialize in battlefield photography, he did take thousands of photographs during the war. Many studio portraits of Union officers and government officials taken in Washington during the conflict were shot by him.
Brady, in organizing his employees to photograph the war, spent essentially his entire fortune outfitting men with cameras and traveling darkroom equipment. The lavish spending on the war proved to be a very bad business decision.
By the end of the war Brady possessed approximately 10,000 negatives, and he hoped he could market prints of war scenes. But he discovered that Americans had grown tired of the long and costly war.
In financial distress, Brady was forced to sell off most of his negatives, which eventually found their way to the Library or Congress or the National Archives. He managed to hold on to his photography business, but in the decades following the war he never again achieved great success.
Brady died on January 15, 1896. A story in the New York Times on January 19, 1896, said that Brady had died in a New York hospital "alone and unnoticed." The article mentioned that he had created a great record of the Civil War, but had never been "repaid for the time and money he spent" taking photographs of the conflict.
His funeral was paid for by a group of Civil War veterans from the New York 7th Regiment, and he was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.