|MATHEW B. BRADY, The best known
professional photographer in the history of American photography, was born about 1822, in
Warren County, New York, near Lake George. He was the son of Irish immigrants. In the late
1830s he became a resident of Saratoga Springs, where he became acquainted with the
artist, William Page. Brady here learned the trade of 'maker of jewel and miniature
cases', and took lessons in painting from Page. About 1839 both men moved to New York City
where Page introduced Brady to Samuel F. B. Morse, who in turn had been Pages
instructor in art. Morse had just returned from Europe where he had seen the results of
Daguerres wonderful invention and he himself had begun the practice of the new art
Brady became fascinated, too, by the process which could, for the first time, reproduce in facsimile any given scene. So great was his interest that he took lessons from Morse in this newest of professions. It was not for several years, however, that Brady was able to acquire the necessary capital and skill to launch into the business of "daguerreotypy" for himself. Finally, in 1844, he rented some rooms on the top floor of a building at the corner of Fulton Street and Broadway and began the career which led to his lasting fame.
Early Photographic Work
Brady took up his new work with enthusiasm. He was young, energetic, enterprising and industrious and devoted himself unreservedly to the new craft. He attempted to raise the new profession to the dignity of the older arts. He was not alone in this attempt, of course, for Jeremiah Gurney, also of New York, John A. Whipple and Southworth and Hawes in Boston, Marcus Root in Philadelphia, J. H. Fitzgibbon in St. Louis, and Alexander Hesler in Chicago, all contemporaries of Brady, were striving toward the same end. But the majority of early workers in daguerreotypy were men of little talent and vision. Men of native ability, such as Brady, were bound to succeed. They were willing to devote their entire interest to the craft, to learn each step of the new art, not only by doing but by reading all that was published on the subject, to experiment when the days work was done, and to consult chemists and artists for any aid they might furnish. Brady, for instance, was one of the first, if not the first, to use a large skylight as part of his photographic equipment.
It is not only his mastery of technical details that causes Bradys name to be remembered to this day. He conceived another venture the year after he first became a professional daguerreotypist. This idea, which was to remain a guiding principle with him for most of his long career, was the project of collecting the portraits of all the distinguished individuals whom he could induce to sit before his camera. With this end in view, he entered public competition to attract attention, advertised widely and began the publication of lithographed portraits of notables. In 1847, he opened a temporary gallery in Washington and as a result became by 1850 the leading photographer of the times.
|The list of individuals who sat for Brady during the
daguerreotype era reads like a roster of all the countrys historic names. The
breadth and scope of this phase of Bradys career is best illustrated by the fact
that he photographed, with one exception, every President of the United States from John
Quincy Adams, the sixth President, down to and including William McKinley, the
twenty-fifth President. Not all were photographed during their term of office; Adams, for
example, was President from 1825 to 1829, before daguerreotype was introduced. The lone
exception to Bradys remarkable record was William Henry Harrison, who died a month
after his inauguration, and three years before Brady began his photographic career.
Bradys reputation was still further enhanced when he went abroad in 1851 to exhibit at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, the first international competition among daguerreotypists and photographers. Only three medals were awarded daguerreotypists in the Great Exhibition and all three went to Americans. Brady was awarded one for a collection of forty-eight portraits. M. M. Lawrence was awarded one for a large (10½ X 12½) portrait daguerreotype, and John A. Whipple of Boston received the third for daguerreotypes of the moon which were regarded as indicating the beginning of "a new era in astronomical representation."
While abroad in 1851, Brady became acquainted with the paper and wet plate processes, the latter having just been introduced. On his return home, he soon put into practice the result of his observations and was one of the first professionals to use the wet plate process.
In the middle 1850s Alexander Gardner, an expert on enlarging, was brought by Brady from his home in Scotland to practice still another new development. As a result, "imperial photographs," huge prints as large as 17 X 20, were introduced to a delighted and amazed public. As success resulted from these ventures, Brady undertook still another. In 1858, a permanent branch gallery was established and Bradys name became one of the best known of his day. For this pioneering work in commercial photography Brady deserves much credit.
Civil War Work
With the outbreak of Civil War, Bradys absorbing passion determined his career. Although he had already achieved considerable fame, a spirit within him forced him to the rough-and-ready life of the road and the camp. The self-appointed pictorial historian of his age, he decided to record by means of the camera the most important event in American history during the nineteenth century.
After organizing a staff of photographers, which at one time numbered as many as twenty professionals, Brady equipped them and sent them to the various fronts. Among the staff who took the field for Brady were Alexander and James Gardner, T. H. OSullivan, T. C. Roche, S. C. Chester, David Knox, and many others. Brady himself was frequently in the field and on several occasions was under fire.
Over a hundred thousand dollars was spent in the venture, from which Brady had only a small return; but the publication of the ten volume work, The Photographic History of the Civil War, constitutes a memorial that will give the name of Mathew B. Brady to posterity.
Bradys important and historic negatives have had a long and complicated history. Many were made in duplicate and triplicate and as a result there are several collections still surviving. The largest of these is in the possession of the Signal Corps of the United States Army and numbers some 6000 images. Prints from many of these negatives are still obtainable. An examination of the catalog of the collection shows that it contains not only the Brady Civil War views but portraits of hundreds of well-known figures in American life before the war as well.
After The War
At the close of the war, Brady fell on evil days. His large investment in the Civil War photographs and their poor return were followed by a national depression in which Brady lost nearly all his possessions. After the war he continued to practice in Washington, at first with some success. But as the years passed, his fortunes rapidly receded. His place as the "fashionable" photographer of the day had been taken by Napoleon Sarony and J. M. Mora, and Brady was never able to regain it. When he died in New York City on January 15, 1896, he was alone and destitute. Only the collection of a sum of money by a few friends saved from burial in potters field. Mathew B. Brady was one of the greatest men in photographic history.
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