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  Mathew Brady and Photography during the Civil War

By John T. Marck



Mathew Brady was the son of Irish immigrants, and was born in 1823 near Saratoga Springs, Warren County, New York. Leaving home at the age of sixteen in 1839, he went to the city of Saratoga, where he met William Page, a renown artist, who took Mathew in as a student. In the fall this same year, Page took Mathew to New York City where he introduced him to Samuel F.B. Morse, known for his invention of the telegraph in 1838, and who also was an accomplished painter and professor of painting and design at New York University. It would be here that Morse accepted Brady as a painting student.

To help with his expenses, Brady worked as a department store clerk, and within a short time, opened his own small business manufacturing jewelry cases. Meanwhile, Samuel Morse had visited Paris, France, and while there met Louis Daguerre, inventor of the daguerreotype. Morse was impressed with this invention and brought it back to the United States. Back in New York, Morse established a studio and began to offer classes in its instruction. Mathew Brady, fascinated with the possibilities it provided in photography, worked long hours to save the money to enroll in Morse's class.

The daguerreotype is an image that was made directly on a sheet of copper that was plated with silver, then polished and exposed to iodine vapor, so that it would be sensitive to light. This plate was then placed in a camera obscura, exposed, and then developed with mercury vapor. This process created a chemical reaction with the iodine and silver, whereby mercury deposits form on the plate. The area that received the most light had the greater number of deposits, and the area with the least or none, was that area usually in the shadows. This plate would then be washed with a solution that removes the remainder of the light-sensitive substance, so that only the image remained. It then was rinsed with water, dried and mounted under glass.

Having mastered the daguerreotype, Brady soon acquired a reputation as one of the nation's finest photographers, and in 1844, opened his own studio in New York. Twelve years later, Brady expanded his operations and opened a studio in Washington, D.C., so that he would be closer to the nations' leaders and could easily photograph them. Brady then went on to greater fame by his invention of the tinted daguerreotype rendered on ivory. In 1855, Brady invited Alexander Gardner to America. Gardner, an Englishman, had perfected the wet-plate process of photography that had been invented by Scott-Archer. Under the careful guidance of Gardner, Brady deserted his work with the daguerreotype, and pursued this new wet-plate method.

This wet-plate process used a sticky liquid known as collodian that was treated to make it light-sensitive. It was used to fix a negative image to a glass plate, then the developed and dried plate allowed the photographer to then make an unlimited number of positive prints from it. It also allowed for the first time the ability of making enlarged prints. As this collodian process became more popular, the use of the daguerreotype began to fizzle out.

Having considerable success as a portrait photographer, Brady then turned his attention in 1861 to photographing the Civil War. To document the war, he organized his own corps of about 300 photographers who were to be placed in various geographical areas, and whose job it was to follow and photograph the soldiers in the field. Many of Brady's friends attempted to discourage this idea, reminding him of the obvious dangers not only to him, but to his staff. But Brady was steadfast in his belief that this must be done, and his finest notoriety was yet to come.

For the next four years of the Civil War, Brady and his staff photographed the horrors of war, as well as landscapes, battlefields, the glory and horrors of the aftermath of battle, weapons used, and life in the camps, as well as the soldiers themselves. Although it is widely known that battlefield fighting was believed to be photographed, it was difficult to accomplish if not impossible. This was because images took 15-30 seconds to photograph. Consequently, on the battlefield, people were generally not standing still, thus the image was blurred. Because of this, almost all battlefield action scenes were recorded by artists, who drew pen-and-ink sketches of the action. These completed sketches were then taken from the battlefield and hurried back to various editorial offices where they were turned into wood engravings for printing in such publications as Leslie's Weekly, Harpers Weekly, the New York Illustrated News, and the London Illustrated News.

The camera that Mathew Brady and his staff used looked like the image at left. It was quite large and rather bulky, with its viewfinder in the back. To simply know how it worked, the photographer would place the camera on a wooden legged tripod. The image then passed through the camera upside down onto a chemically treated plate. This plate was then exposed for about 15 to 30 seconds, depending on lighting and conditions. The exposed plate was then developed in a series of chemical solutions that made a negative. The photographer then took the negative and placed it in the sunlight on a sheet of light-sensitive paper to make a picture. Once the picture was developed, it was washed in water then dried, making the finished photograph. When taking a picture of men in the field, soldiers often leaned against trees, tent poles, or other sturdy objects to prevent any motion, that would blur the image.

It has been estimated that Brady took more than 3,500 photographs during the war years. Actually there were thousands taken during the war, on the field of battle or in the camps, but Brady himself took very few. Although not realized by most, Brady was secretly almost blind. Consequently, his best efforts came in his studio, or those taken of still subjects, such as his wonderful portraits of President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee.

Although Brady did not actually shoot the thousands of photographs attributed to him, he did spend most of the war years as a project manager, supervising his corps of photographers, and preserving their negatives. Brady also purchased many other images from other photographers not on his staff. However, whether taken by Brady, his staff, or others, they all were credited with "Photograph by Brady." A great number of the war time photographs were taken by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan.

During the war, Brady imagined that his photograph collection would bring an enormous amount of money after the war. Although many were published in Leslie's and Harper's, the mass commercial distribution that he envisioned never materialized. It is presumed that after the war, the public at large was sick and tired of seeing the horrors of war, resulting in its failure. For his war project, Brady had invested his entire fortune of $100,000. After the war, and for years since, Brady tried in vain to convince the government to purchase his collection. Finally, with creditors after him, he was forced into a  bankruptcy filing.

Despondent, he became an alcoholic, and consequently failed to keep up with the many advances and innovations in the world of photography. Finally, in 1875, the government gave him $25,000 for his entire Civil War collection. But, this small amount compared to his investment only served to pay his remaining debts, and left nothing for him to live on nor for any new ventures.

Following this, Brady and his wife, Juliette Handy, whom he married in 1851, were forced to live in cheap boarding houses, with Brady working at times for other photographers.

In 1887, Juliette died, which devastated Brady. In the years that followed, Brady was dejected and lonely. In 1894, he lived with a member of his wife's family, the nephew of Levin Handy, at 494 Maryland Avenue, S.W., in Washington, D.C. In 1895, Brady was struck by a horse carriage while walking in Washington, breaking his leg. Late in 1895, he then moved to New York City where he was beginning to work on an illustrated lecture series based on his photographs. Being ill from his leg injury, he entered the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, where he died in 1896. Mathew Brady was buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

It is ironic, considering how badly he was treated after the war, that his vision and photography would become the total essence of America's visual impression of the Civil War. Without him and his imagination, we would never have known or seen the thousands of images that put us there, that enable us to try to know what the war was really like, and the horrors and hardships that Americans suffered through this most difficult time in America history. Without him and his photographs, this book and hundreds of others that tell of the Civil War would not be complete, nor would generations to come be able to live the war through his efforts.

Mathew Brady and his imaginativeness of documenting the conflict through photography, was probably the single most important nonmilitary event of the American Civil War.

Copyright 1990-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.