In his portraits of prominent Americans in the late 1840s and 1850s and in the camp and battlefield views made under his aegis during the Civil War, Mathew Brady helped define a role for American photographers as historians of contemporary life. Although he operated a camera himself only infrequently-he was hampered by poor eyesight-he shaped, more effectively than any of his contemporaries, an identity for photography as a force in American society, politics, and culture.
In 1839, the same year Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre announced his invention of photography in Paris, the young Brady arrived in New York City from his upstate New York home where he had been born to Irish parents. After a brief stint as a clerk in the A. T. Stewart department store and a few years as a manufacturer of jewelry cases (including cases for daguerreotypes), he opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton streets in 1844. In the growing competition among professional daguerreotypists Brady became expert in advertising himself and attracting prominent sitters. ‘Brady of Broadway’ became the most widely recognized and admired photographic trademark of the antebellum era.
The inaugural issue of the Photographic Art-Journal in 1851 described him as the ‘fountainhead’ of the young profession of portrait photography. In the same year he was awarded one of three gold medals for daguerreotypes at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London (the other two also went to Americans). In the 1850s his trade, now including paper prints, expanded rapidly; he moved his gallery into more sumptuous quarters uptown and in 1858 opened a branch in Washington, D.C. With his portraits of public figures appearing regularly as engravings in the national press, Brady had immense influence on the times. His famous Cooper Union portrait of Abraham Lincoln during the presidential campaign of 1860 contributed in no small way to making Lincoln a popular figure.
But Brady’s greatest success lay in his organization of a corps of Civil War photographers who followed the armies and produced an incomparable firsthand record of the war years. The pictures he acquired and published represent one of the greatest collective depictions in photography of a major historical event. Brady, however, never recovered from the loss of the private fortune he invested in this project, and his career declined precipitously during the Gilded Age. When he died in 1896 he was close to destitution.
Although he made no profit from it in his lifetime, his collection of Civil War pictures, including many antebellum portraits of prominent figures of the war years, finally made its way into national archives, where it remains the chief source of visual information about the period and the war. Interest in Mathew Brady revived in the 1930s, and his work exerted a major influence on the documentary movement in photography in the depression era.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.