Born around 1822 in Warren County, New York, the youngest of three children of Irish immigrants, Mathew Brady at age 16 moved to Saratoga, New York, where he met and studied with the portrait painter William Page. In 1839, Brady and Page traveled to New York City, where they connected with Samuel F.B. Morse, Page’s former teacher. Morse had recently returned from France, where he had collaborated with Louis Jacques Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype, an unwieldy camera devise which produced images on silver-plated copper sheets treated with mercury vapor. Morse enthusiastically promoted the daguerreotype in the United States, and Brady assisted him in this endeavor, originally by making leather cases for them. When Morse opened a photography studio and offered lessons, Brady was his first student.
In 1844, Brady opened his own photography studio at Broadway and Fulton Street in New York City. He took portraits, including those of such notables as Senator Daniel Webster, poet Edgar Allan Poe, and elderly former President Andrew Jackson. In 1849, he opened a studio on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., where he met Juliet Handy, whom he married in 1850. (They made their home on Staten Island.) Brady’s early images were daguerreotypes, but as technology advanced, he switched to the albumen print, a paper photograph produced from large glass negatives.
When the Civil War first broke out, Brady advertised portraits and small-sized prints of departing soldiers, reasoning that their parents and loved ones might want an image of the son, brother, husband, or boyfriend they might never see again.
But he soon came up with the idea of documenting the war itself. He requested permission from his friend, General Winfield Scott, to travel to the battle sites, and eventually wrote to President Lincoln himself. Lincoln granted permission in 1861, with the understanding that Brady must finance the project himself. (Click on smaller pictures below to enlarge and read captions.)
Most of the time Brady photographed the battlefields after the fighting had ceased, but he came under direct fire at the First Battle of Bull Run, Petersburg, and Fredericksburg. His friends tried to dissuade him from this dangerous and financially risky pursuit, but his adherence to what he perceived as his calling won him a place in history.
Brady hired twenty-three assistants, each of whom was given a traveling darkroom, to photograph scenes from the Civil War. Brady generally stayed in Washington, D.C., directing his assistants, and rarely visited battlefields personally. Though actually snapping the picture was important, the selection of the scene to be photographed was also a significant contribution.
Brady’s use of assistants may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that his eyesight had begun to deteriorate. Brady was criticized for failing to document the photographs, making it difficult to discern not only who took the picture, but also exactly when or where it was taken.
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”.
Mathew Brady, through his many paid assistants, took thousands of photos of American Civil War scenes. Much of the popular understanding of the Civil War comes from these photos. Thousands of photos taken by Brady and his associates, Alexander Gardner, George Barnard and Timothy O’Sullivan are stored in the US National Archives and the Library of Congress. The photographs’ subjects include Lincoln, Grant, and soldiers in camps and battlefields. Brady was not able to photograph actual battle scenes, as the photographic equipment in those days was limited in its technical development and required that a subject remain still in order for a clear photo to be produced. Following the conflict, a war-weary public lost interest in seeing photos of the war, and Brady’s popularity and practice declined drastically. Nevertheless, Brady’s images provide a pictorial cross reference of American Civil War history.