Mathew B. Brady
(ca. 1822 – January 15, 1896) was one of the most celebrated 19th century American photographers
, best known for his portraits of celebrities and his documentation of the American Civil War
. He is credited with being the father of photojournalism
Brady was born in Warren County, New York, the youngest of three children of Irish immigrant parents, Andrew and Julia Brady. At age 16 he moved to Saratoga, New York, where he met famed portrait painter William Page
. Brady became Page's student. In 1839 the two traveled to Albany, New York, and then to New York City, where Brady continued to study painting with Page, and also with Page's former teacher, Samuel F. B. Morse
. Morse had met Louis Jacques Daguerre
in France in 1839, and returned to the US to enthusiastically push the new daguerreotype
invention of capturing images. He soon became the center of the New York artistic colony who wished to study photography. He opened a studio and offered classes; Brady was one of the first students. In 1844 Brady opened his own photography studio in New York, and by 1845 he began to exhibit his portraits of famous Americans. He opened a studio in Washington, D.C.
in 1849, where he met Juliet (whom everybody called 'Julia') Handy, whom he married in 1851. Brady's early images were daguerreotypes
, and he won many awards for his work; in the 1850s ambrotype
photography became popular, which gave way to the albumen print
, a paper photograph produced from large glass negatives most commonly used in the American Civil War photography. In 1850 Brady produced The Gallery of Illustrious Americans
, a portrait collection of prominent contemporary figures. The album, which featured noteworthy images including the elderly Andrew Jackson
at the Hermitage, was not financially rewarding but invited increased attention to Brady’s work and artistry. In 1854, Parisian
photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri
popularized the carte de visite
and these small pictures (the size of a visiting card) rapidly became a popular novelty as thousands of these images were created and sold in the United States and Europe.
At first, the effect of the Civil War on Brady's business was a brisk increase in sales of cartes de visite
to transient soldiers. However, he was soon taken with the idea of documenting the war itself. He first applied for permission to travel to the battle sites to an old friend, GeneralWinfield Scott
, and eventually he made his application to President Lincoln himself. Lincoln granted permission in 1861 with the proviso that Brady finance the project himself. His efforts to document the American Civil War
on a grand scale by bringing his photographic studio right onto the battlefields earned Brady his place in history. Despite the obvious dangers, financial risk, and discouragement of his friends, Brady is later quoted as saying "I had to go. A spirit in my feet said 'Go,' and I went." His first popular photographs of the conflict were at the First Battle of Bull Run
, in which he got so close to the action that he barely avoided capture.
He employed Alexander Gardner
, James Gardner, Timothy H. O'Sullivan
, William Pywell
, George N. Barnard
, Thomas C. Roche
, and seventeen other men, each of whom was given a traveling darkroom, to go out and photograph scenes from the Civil War. Brady generally stayed in Washington, D. C., organizing his assistants and rarely visited battlefields personally. This may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that Brady's eyesight had begun to deteriorate in the 1850s.
In October 1862 Brady opened an exhibition of photographs from the Battle of Antietam
in his New York gallery titled "The Dead of Antietam." Many images in this presentation were graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation new to America. This was the first time that many Americans saw the realities of war in photographs as distinct from previous "artists' impressions". Following the conflict a war-weary public lost interest in seeing photos of the war, and Brady’s popularity and practice declined drastically
During the war, Brady spent over $100,000 to create over 10,000 glass plate negatives. He expected the U.S. government to buy the photographs when the war ended, but when the government refused to do so he was forced to sell his New York City studio and go into bankruptcy. Congress granted Brady $25,000 in 1875, but he remained deeply in debt. Depressed by his financial situation, loss of eyesight and devastated by the death of his wife in 1887, he became very lonely. He died penniless in the charity ward of Presbyterian Hospital in New York City on January 15, 1896, from complications following a streetcar accident.
Brady's funeral was financed by veterans of the 7th New York Infantry
. He was buried in the Congressional Cemetery
in Washington, D.C., Brady photographed 18 of the 19 American Presidents from John Quincy Adams
to William McKinley
. The exception was the 9th President,William Henry Harrison
, who died in office three years before Brady started his Photographic Collection.
Brady photographed Abraham Lincoln
on many occasions. His Lincoln photographs have been used for the $5 dollar bill
and the Lincoln penny
Brady produced over seven thousand pictures (mostly two negatives of each). One set "after undergoing extraordinary vicissitudes," came into U.S. government possession. His own negatives passed in the 1870s to E. & H.T. Anthony
, of New York, in default of payment for photographic supplies. They "were kicked about from pillar to post" for ten years, until John C. Taylor
found them in an attic and bought them; from this they became "the backbone of the Ordway-Rand
collection; and in 1895 Brady himself had no idea of what had become of them. Many were broken, lost, or destroyed by fire. After passing to various other owners, they were discovered and appreciated by Edward Bailey Eaton
," who set in motion "events that led to their importance as the nucleus of a collection of Civil War photos published in 1912 asThe Photographic History of the Civil War.
Some of the lost images are mentioned in the last episode of Ken Burns
' 1990 documentary on the Civil War
. Burns claims that glass plate negatives were often sold to gardeners, not for their images, but for the glass itself to be used in greenhouses and cold frames. In the years that followed the end of the war, the sun slowly burned away their filmy images and were lost.