Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation

Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation

Robert Wilson

Language: English

Pages: 288

ISBN: 1620402033

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


In the 1840s and 1850s, "Brady of Broadway" was one of the most successful and acclaimed Manhattan portrait galleries. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Dolley Madison, Henry James as a boy with his father, Horace Greeley, Edgar Allan Poe, the Prince of Wales, and Jenny Lind were among the dignitaries photographed in Mathew Brady's studio. But it was during the Civil War that he became the founding father of what is now called photojournalism and his photography became an enduring part of American history.

The Civil War was the first war in history to leave a detailed photographic record, and Mathew Brady was the war's chief visual historian. Previously, the general public had never seen in such detail the bloody particulars of war--the strewn bodies of the dead, the bloated carcasses of horses, the splintered remains of trees and fortifications, the chaos and suffering on the battlefield. Brady knew better than anyone of his era the dual power of the camera to record and to excite, to stop a moment in time and to draw the viewer vividly into that moment.

He was not, in the strictest sense, a Civil War photographer. As the director of a photographic service, he assigned Alexander Gardner, James F. Gibson, and others to take photographs, often under his personal supervision; he also distributed Civil War photographs taken by others not employed by him. Ironically, Brady had accompanied the Union army to the first major battle at Bull Run, but was so shaken by the experience that throughout the rest of the war he rarely visited battlefields, except well before or after a major battle. The famous Brady photographs at Antietam were shot by Gardner and Gibson.

Few books about Brady have gone beyond being collections of the photographs attributed to him, accompanied by a biographical sketch. MATHEW BRADY will be the biography of an American legend--a businessman, an accomplished and innovative technician, a suave promoter, a celebrated portrait artist, and, perhaps most important, a historian who chronicled America during its finest and gravest moments of the 19th century.

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Keys, Virginia, in June 1862, he was determined to see an infantry charge, but the vantage he found was within the range of Confederate artillery, and once he began to see wounded men carried past him from the front, “my ideas of witnessing a battle underwent great change.”5 But given the numbers of photographers following the course of the war—by one estimate, “more than 300 civilian photographers covered the actions of the Army of the Potomac alone”—and given the efforts of Brady and others to

and the better part of a week to return to Washington.5 Pinkerton claims in his memoirs that President Lincoln and war secretary Edwin Stanton asked him to stay on after McClellan’s dismissal, perhaps not realizing that Pinkerton’s Secret Service was the source of much of the misinformation about Lee on which McClellan had based his failures to attack. But, Pinkerton writes, “I declined to act any further in the capacity in which I had previously served.”6 President Lincoln and General

another month Grant was ready to put his vast plan into effect, and, as he put it in his memoirs: Soon after midnight, May 3d–4th, the Army of the Potomac moved out from its position north of the Rapidan, to start upon that memorable campaign, destined to result in the capture of the Confederate capital and the army defending it.10 As Grant hastened to admit, achieving his goal would take longer than “a single season,” and “losses inflicted, and endured, were destined to be severe,” but what

after the war ended, he would continue to collect, believing with good cause that they formed a historical record that was valuable to the nation and its culture, and valuable enough that he should be compensated for it. It would take him years of effort to win any sort of compensation at all, but the reasons for the delays, and for the relatively small amount he was eventually paid, had nothing to do with a lack of interest by the general public in Civil War images. And no doubt was ever raised

Broadway at Prince Street. By December 10 he was advertising in the Daily Tribune that his work had won a “First Premium” at the fair. One thing that distinguished his images was their clarity, attributed not only to the lighting but also to his ability to achieve a high polish in preparing the silvered copper plates. Samuel Morse had early on tinkered with mechanical ways to polish plates, so perhaps Brady learned this from him, or built upon Morse’s ideas. A writer for the New York Herald

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