Mathew B. Brady is known as the best professional photographer in the history of American photography. Born in 1822, in Warren County, New York, near Lake George, Brady’s works are one of the best works in photography in the nineteenth century. He was born to Irish immigrant parents and in the 1830s, they shifted to Saratoga Springs, where he became acquainted with the famous artist of the time, William Page. He took lessons in painting from Page and learned the trade of jewel and miniature cases. Around 1839, both Brady and his mentor Page, moved to New York City and the latter introduced Brady to the famous Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse code. Morse was also a great painter and he had been an art instructor to Page. Morse had just returned from Europe and he was fascinated by the invention of the French artist and photographer, Louis Daguerre. Daugerre is regarded as one of the founding figures of photography. Morse himself began to practice this new art of photography.
Brady also became fascinated by the Daguerreotype process of photography, a process, which could, for the first time, reproduce any given scene. He took lessons from Morse in photography. However, it took several years for Brady to acquire the necessary capital and skill to venture into the business of Daguerreotype photography, by himself. It was only in 1844, that he finally rented some rooms on the top floor of a building in Fulton Street and Broadway, opening a studio of his own.
Early Photographic Work
The young, energetic and industrious Brady took up his new work with enthusiasm and devoted himself unreservedly to the art of photography. During those days, photography was a new art and it did not enjoy the dignity and respect of the older arts. Together with photographers like Jeremiah Gurney (New York), J. H. Fitzgibbon (St. Louis), Alexander Hesler (Chicago), John A. Whipple (Boston) and Marus Root (Philadelphia), he strived to raise this new profession to the dignity of the older arts. However, not all the early artists of Daguerreotype were people of talent and vision like Brady. It was only people like him who devoted their entire time to the craft, to learn each and every step of the new craft. They did it,by not only doing photography but also by experimenting, by reading everything that was published on the subject and by consulting chemists and artists for any kind of aid that they could provide. For instance, Brady was one of the first to use a large skylight as a part of his photographic equipment.
Brady not only mastered the technical details, but also took portrait shots of the notable personalities of his time. He advertised himself widely, to attract the attention of distinguished individuals. In 1847, he opened a temporary gallery in Washington, which increased his fame. The individuals who sat for Brady during the Daguerreotype era include all historic names of the US at that time. With one exception, he photographed every President of the US, from the sixth President to the twenty fifth President. Not all of them, however, were photographed during their term in office. For instance, the sixth President, John Adams was photographed much after his term.
Brady went abroad in 1851 to exhibit at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. It was the first international competition amongst the daguerreotypists and photographers, and the visit served to boost r Brady’s reputation. In the competition, Brady won one of the three gold medals meant for the daguerreotypists. All three of them were won by the Americans. Brady was awarded one for the collection of forty-eight portraits.
While abroad, in 1851, Brady became acquainted with the paper and the wet plate processes in photography. The latter had just been introduced. After returning to the US, he soon put it into practice and became one of the first professionals to use the wet plate process. In the middle of the same decade, he got in touch with a Scotish photographer, Alexander Gardner, who was an expert on enlarging. Upon learning from him, Brady went on to produce prints as large as 17 x 20, which delighted and amazed the American public. In 1858, a permanent gallery was established in Brady’s name, establishing him as the best professional photographer of his day.
Civil War Work
The outbreak of the American Civil War completely altercated Brady’s career. He was now ready to live the life of the road and the camp. With his camera, he decided to record the most important event in American history in the nineteenth century. He organised a staff of photographers, which at one point, numbered as many as twenty professionals. He equipped them and sent them to the various fronts of the War. Brady himself frequently visited the field, and risked his life on several occasions.
Brady earned a small return from over a hundred thousand dollars which he had spent in the venture of documenting the Civil War. However, his efforts led to the publication of a ten volume work, The Photographic History of the Civil War, which was to serve the collective memories of the Americans for generations to come.
Many of his important and historic negatives were made in duplicate and triplicate. As a result, several collections of his work still survive. Around 6000 of these negatives are under the possession of the Signal Corps of the US Army.Prints from many of these negatives can still be obtained. These negatives not just include the documentation of the Civil War, but also portraits of well-known personalities of American history, which were taken before the War.
After The War
The Civil War was followed by a depression in the US economy. As already mentioned, Brady’s large investment in war photography had virtually no returns, and after the war, he lost nearly all his possessions. For a few years, he continued to practice in Washington with some success. But with every passing year, his fortunes rapidly receded. His fame and glory was now taken over by Napoleon Sarony and J.M. Mora. When the great photographer Brady died in New York City on January 15, 1896, he was all alone and destitute. However, his pioneering works continue to influence photographers to this day.