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Mathew Brady (1822-1896) was America's most sought-after portrait photographer, who numbered eighteen Presidents among his sitters. But his historical legacy rests not only on the "Gallery of Illustrious Americans" he recorded; it is also based on his work as a pioneer of photo journalism in America. His classic black and white images of the Civil War remain one of the most powerful studies ever of the horrors of armed conflict.
Photo: Mathew Brady, c. 1875, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: cwpbh 03798
After the introduction to America of the daguerreotype in 1839, Mathew Brady established his own studio on New York City's lower Broadway in 1844. To this studio came Walt Whitman, who thought Brady "a capital artist;" he loved to engage Brady in discussions about the relationship between photography and poetry and the function the photograph could have in shaping the democratic experience. Poet and photographer shared the belief that history might best be preserved through realistic images--not only of people, but also of events.
Civil War Chronicles
Surely the most sweeping and scarring drama America would experience in the 19th century was that of the Civil War. Brady immediately recognized the opportunity the war afforded his lens for preserving history and shaping attitudes. Beginning with the Battle of Bull Run in 1862, Brady organized twenty teams of photographers to cover the major engagements of the war: Mechanicsville, Fair Oaks, the Seven Days Battles, Sharpsburg, Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Cold Harbor. Though the enterprise would nearly bankrupt him, Brady and his crews produced over 3,500 photographs of the Civil War.
Brady's subject matter focused less on the actual shooting--his crews generally moved behind the troop lines--and more on the quotidian aspects of war: the protagonists (soldiers as well as generals); their camp life; their work building bridges, digging trenches, and fortifying positions; their exchanges in living and dying. In Brady's chronicle the war itself is a curiously elusive character. What his lens captures, instead, are the results of war: the ravages on man and landscape; the toll on human faces, on human bodies, in human hearts. In As Walt Whitman, who had nursed soldiers in the battlefield hospitals of Washington and Virginia, would write in Drum Taps: "The real war will never get in the books." It was this war that Brady documented so brilliantly: the rending conflict that cut down youth in its flowering, that pitted brother against brother, and that resulted in the highest loss of human life this nation has ever experienced in battle.
After the Civil War, Brady returned to private practice as a portraitist, his name having become a household word. His stunningly perceptive images, such as his 1867 study of Whitman, foreshadowed the work of the late 19th-century painters of realism, among them Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent.
Among Brady's most famous images were his photographs of Lincoln and Gettysburg. Together with Whitman's words they have inspired several song cycles, among them Ned Rorem's War Scenes and John Adams's The Wound Dresser.
--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing