Book focuses on Civil War photographer Brady
Published: Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 5:34 p.m.
Civil War photographer Mathew Brady largely taught himself the finer points of the two pursuits that have linked his name to history: taking pictures and self-promotion. The son of Irish immigrant farmers had a talent for cajoling presidents, generals and business leaders to sit before his camera.
Other than his birth around 1823 in Warren County, N.Y., little is recorded about Brady's early life, a challenge for biographer Robert Wilson. Yet readers of "Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation" probably benefit from this dearth of personal information. Wilson moves quickly to what matters most — Brady's role in how we see America in the mid- to late 19th century.
Timing was on Brady's side when, as a teenager, he left the countryside for the big city around 1840. The early photographic process called daguerreotype, invented in Paris, arrived in New York just ahead of him. He may have taken lessons in the technique while supporting himself as a clerk at a fabric store.
In 1844, Brady opened a photographic studio that produced portraits, and after five years of success, he started a studio in Washington. Wilson makes a compelling case that Brady eventually rose above a sea of artistic entrepreneurs offering photographic portraits because he learned, and often advanced, the latest techniques. As important, he had a pleasing manner that put subjects at ease during the time-consuming process of getting a picture taken.
A decade later, when the nation seemed destined to fracture over slavery, Brady was, as Wilson puts it, at the "height of his fame as a photographer of celebrities." His 1860 photograph of a beardless Abraham Lincoln — Brady pulled up the collars on Lincoln's shirt and coat, probably to hide his long neck — helped to make the presidential aspirant known around the country.
The Civil War created a strong demand for photographs of soldiers in studio settings and in encampments. The custom of the time was for the studio's owner to take the credit, not those working in the studio or in the field. While Brady shared credit with his photographers some of the time and traveled to battlefields such as Gettysburg, his name is associated with many photographs he didn't take.
As the war continued, photographic images of dead soldiers, slain horses and other post-battle carnage brought to the public a face of war most had never seen.
Wilson argues that Brady's role in promoting wartime images through his studios and the print media was crucial to their impact even if he wasn't the man behind the camera.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.