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HOME > ARTICLES > JULY 2002

THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL
PHOTOGRAPHER: MATHEW BRADY


by Jeannine Coup

Most of our knowledge of the Civil War, and the period of American History from 1861 to 1865, is seen through the eyes and camera lens of Mathew Brady. Before photography we had only the writers, sometimes biased, words for our understanding of events in history. There were many different people experimenting with photography but one man stands above the rest in his vision and his artistry. He was the first presidential photographer, Mathew Brady.

Brady was born in Warren County, near Lake George, New York in 1826. He was the son of an Irish immigrant who moved the family to Saratoga Springs, NY. Mathew began working by making cases for watches and instruments. By 1840 Brady moved to New York City and studied the making of daguerreotypes with Samuel Morse who had learned this new process directly from Louis-Etienne Daguerre. With the financial backing of A.T. Stewart, a millionaire merchant, Brady opened his first gallery on the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, diagonally opposite the P.T. Barnum Museum. His gallery was an immediate success and was known as "Brady's Broadway Valhalla."

Among Brady's first sitters were Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Their portraits were among the first pictures to be mounted in a magnificent portfolio by Brady, "Gallery of Illustrious Americans."

Celebrities of government, theater and New York society wanted their photos taken by Brady. Among these were Zachary Taylor, Andrew Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, James Polk, John Tyler and Abraham Lincoln. Brady impressed his clients because he was dapper, well mannered and very discreet. He was described as

...a man of artistic appearance and of very slight physique- -about five feet six inches tall, who generally wore a broad-brimmed hat, similar to those worn by the art students of Paris.

By 1850 Brady had so much business that he opened his second gallery uptown at 359 Broadway. The walls hung with the finest daguerreotypes of the most famous people in New York and in the entire country. He became very well known and respected for his work. In 1854 Brady was invited to display his work at the London's Worlds Fair. There he saw Scott Archer's new "wet plate" process in which you would photograph an image in negative form, from which many prints could be made. Realizing the giant step this was he brought back the process to his studios in New York. This increased his output enormously. Soon his galleries were producing more than thirty thousand portraits a year ranging from $5 to an imperial pastel at $150.

Brady became more famous and wealthy. In 1858 he opened a Washington, DC gallery at the corner of 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The "National Intelligencer" reported the photographs were...

faithful and natural expression... beautiful coloring. Those who have not yet seen this charming gallery would do well to while away an hour in scanning this array of beauty, diplomacy, living senatorial and clerical celebrity, besides the speaking, almost startling likenesses of the great ones who have passed from this earth.

To increase the profit of the D.C. Gallery Brady hired two well-known artists, Henry F. Darby and John F. Neagle to paint portraits from his daguerreotypes of Webster, Clay and Calhoun. Later in his life when Brady hit financial hard times he sold these portraits to the Congressional Joint Committee of the Library to decorate the Capitol for $4,000. The beginning of the Civil War opened a new field of photography. Brady conceived the idea of becoming a "pictorial war correspondent" or a photo-journalist. War correspondent, George Alfred Townsend, who wrote under the name of "Gath" interviewed Brady after the war:

"Did you have any trouble getting to the war to take views?" asked Townsend.

"A good deal," Brady answered. " had long known General Scott, and in the days before the war it was the considerate thing to buy wild ducks at the steamboat crossing of the Susquehanna and take them to your choice friends, and I often took Scott his favorite ducks. I made to him my suggestion in 1861. He told me to my astonishment, that he was not to remain in command: `Mr. Brady, no person but my aide Schuyler Hamilton knows what I am to say to you. General McDowell will succeed me tomorrow. You will have difficulty, but he and Colonel Whipple are the persons for you to see.'

Brady went on to say that he did have trouble getting permission to follow the army. However, he said that he went to the Battle of Bull Run...

...with two wagons from Washington. My personal companions were Dick McCormack, a newspaper writer, Ned House [another writer], and Al Waud, the sketch artist. We stayed all night in Centerville; we got as far as Blackburn's Ford; we made pictures and expected to be in Richmond the next day, but it was not to be..."

There were two very different accounts of Brady at the first Bull Run. In one Brady was "partially blamed for the defeat:

Some pretend, indeed, that it was this mysterious and formidable instrument [Brady's big camera] that produced the panic! The runaways mistook it for the great steam gun discharging five hundred balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within focus.

In the other story a reporter wrote:

Brady has shown more pluck than many officers and soldiers that were in the fight. He went...with his sleeves rolled up and his big camera directed upon every point of interest on the field. It is certain they [the Union soldiers] did not get away from Brady as easily as they did from the enemy. He has fixed the cowards beyond the possibility of a doubt.

The experiences at Bull Run taught Brady about the problems of field photography. To capture the "American War" Brady outfitted and trained twenty photographers and began a project which lasted four years. The expense of keeping these photography wagons, cameras, film and men in the field ruined him financially. Brady later said:

My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence with much misgiving...but a spirit in my feet said GO' and I went.

Mathew Brady could not and did not take all the pictures made of the Civil War. It was later said that Brady "never saw a battlefield," but that was far from the truth. Brady was at the front lines in Grant's campaigns in Virginia. He took pictures at Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam and was with Grant in the final campaigns of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Unfortunately, the dramatic surrender at the end of the war happened so fast and unexpectedly that no photographer was within 40 miles and no picture was taken at Appomattox.

Peace was a welcomed relief to both sides. Soldiers returned home and the country quickly returned to "normal." Americans went back to living and did not want to look at or to purchase pictures of war. Brady's business fortunes made a steady decline. Hie picture files and hundreds of plates which told a complete pictorial history of the war stopped selling one the war was over. The government was in the middle of reconstruction and all the attending problems. Brady and his work were quickly forgotten. Several years later writer J. A. Townsend went to the Washington Gallery to have his portrait done and was surprised to see Mathew Brady still alive:

...like a ray of light travelling toward the vision from some past world or star. Mathew Brady is at the camera still. I felt as he turned my head, a few weeks ago, between his fingers and thumb, still intent upon that which gave him his greatest credit- -finding the expression of the inner spirit of a man- -that those same three digits had lifted the chins and smoothed the hairs of virgin sitters, now grandmothers, the elite beauties of their time.

Mathew Brady had accomplished much but his last few years were filled with disappointment. He had tried to interest the government in purchasing his "war picture collection to illustrate the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion' " but this offer was turned down. To make a living Brady worked as a photographer at the Washington Gallery but was never financially solvent.

Finally, through an auction, a small part of his collection was acquired by the War Department and Congress awarded Brady $25,000 for rights and titles to these pictures. Most of this money went to cover debts. Still broke, Brady was hit by a horse drawn street car while crossing Pennsylvania Avenue. For months he was confined to bed, then walked with crutches, but now his career was over. On April 8, 1895, Brady was to receive a "Grand Testimonial Benefit" from members of the Seventh Regiment of NY at Carnegie Hall. This Civil War Regiment wanted to recognize Brady as their friend and to help raise money for his debts from the coverage of the war. The event was delayed nearly a year and by the time it was organized, Mathew Brady had died penniless, in an alms ward in a New York hospital on January 16, 1896.

Unfortunately, even before Brady's death "get rich quick artists" were already capitalizing on his endeavors. A letter from Brady's close friend, William Riley, to Brady's nephew, L. C. Handy read:

I enclose you an ad from which you will see they are already banking on Brady photos. I called them this morning as I came down and found the work was written by Rossiter Johnson, and the whole thing is a cheap affair. The illustrations are badly printed some of them being indistinct- -but they are genuine copies. And this in only one example. There are other examples, too numerous to mention.

Author of "Mathew Brady's Illustrated History of the Civil War," Benton Lossing reported, "For three generations, Mathew Brady represented integrity in his work; and his signature, Brady, N.Y., on a plate was the hallmark of social acceptance as well as the trademark of an excellent photographer."

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