Mathew B. Brady is the most famous photographer of the American Civil War. Although best known for his photographs of the war, Brady had established himself as one of the country’s preeminent photographers long before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861.
Mathew Brady's Early Life
Born in 1823 or 1824 in Warren County, New York, near Lake George, Brady moved to New York about 1839. That year, Frenchman Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre unveiled to the world the first practical and marketable form of photography—a photograph on a silver plate known as a daguerreotype.
Brady said he learned the process of making a daguerreotype in classes taught by inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, who personally knew Daguerre and helped introduce the daguerreotype in America, where it spread like wildfire.
Brady Opens New York Photo Gallery
In 1844, Brady opened his “Daguerrean Miniature Gallery” on Broadway. With a keen sense of self-promotion, Brady immediately began to set himself apart from the dozens of other New York daguerreotype photographers, winning the top prize for a daguerreotype in the American Institute’s annual fair that same year.
He also began taking and exhibiting daguerreotype portraits of illustrious Americans and his lavishly appointed gallery featured his “National Portrait Gallery.” In 1849, Brady opened a gallery in Washington, D.C., to expand his business and have closer access to the nation’s political leaders.
As new technology advanced photography from the daguerreotype to the glass plate negative process in the 1850s, Brady helped lead the way. The easily reproducible negatives brought mass marketing to photography in the form of card photographs known as cartes de visite (visit cards) and three-dimensional stereo views.
In February 1860, when rising northern political star Abraham Lincoln visited New York for the first time, he had his portrait taken at Brady’s gallery. The carte de visite of Lincoln sold by the thousands.
Brady Captures the Civil War
Brady was eager to capture Civil War photographs and stereographs from the start.
“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence, and I can only describe the destiny that overruled me by saying that, like Euphorion, I felt that I had to go. A spirit in my feet said “Go,” and I went,” he told an interviewer in 1891 with his typical dramatic flair.
When the Union army advanced into Virginia in July 1861, Brady followed. But he returned without any battlefield images. He was forced to flee back to Washington along with the entire army when it was routed at the Battle of First Bull Run.
In 1862, after his Washington gallery manager Alexander Gardner, captured shocking and gruesome photos of dead American soldiers as they fell on the battlefield of Antietam, Brady’s exhibit at his New York gallery, “The Dead of Antietam,” drew large crowds.
Brady’s ambitious efforts frequently outstripped his business acumen and he was often in financial trouble. This may have prompted Gardner to resign from Brady’s employ and opened his own Washington gallery in May 1863.
Gardner took with him many of the 1861-62 “Incidents of the War” negatives, including all of the Antietam images. Key Brady photographers, including James Gibson and Timothy O’Sullivan, also went with Gardner.
Who Took Mathew Brady Photographs?
Brady is unique among the war’s photographers in that some books give him credit for taking nearly every Civil War photograph while other books claim that he took no photos at all because of his poor eyesight.
The truth lies somewhere in between. Brady’s gallery produced and sold Civil War photos by the hundreds, but so did Gardner and other photographers. Like anyone with poor eyesight, Brady wore glasses. But he left much if not all of the camera work to his assistants.
Still, Brady was in the field with the army at least once during every year of the war and was often intimately involved in composing photos, if only because he himself posed in more than 30 images.
Brady organized and financed his gallery’s expeditions, frequently went along and also negotiated the arrangements to photograph key leaders, such as his famous 1865 photographs of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond just days after his surrender.
In that sense, a Brady photograph, like a Steven Spielberg movie, is something that can be clearly credited to him even if he didn’t sensitize glass plates, load cameras and pull the lens caps to expose the negatives.
After the war, Brady continued to operate a Washington gallery into the early 1890s. In 1875, he gained some relief from his chronic money troubles when the U.S. government bought the Civil War negatives and prints still in his possession for $25,000. These images are preserved today at the National Archives.
In 1895, now in his 70s, Brady’s health began to decline after he was struck by a horsecar in Washington and suffered a broken ankle. He recovered well enough to move to New York and begin preparing an illustrated lecture of his Civil War photos for a presentation at Carnegie Hall. It was scheduled for January 30, 1896, but he was hospitalized and died on January 15. He is buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington.
Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation, a biography by Robert Wilson, published by Bloomsbury (New York), 2013.
Mathew Brady and the Image of History, by Mary Panzer, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press (Washington, D.C.), 1997.
The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography, by Bob Zeller, published by Praeger (Westport, Conn.), 2005.
Mathew Brady’s National Portrait Gallery Gazette, an eight-page newspaper and timeline published by the Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with the gallery’s 1996-97 exhibition “Mathew Brady’s Portraits: Images as History, Photography as Art,” at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., Sept. 26, 1997.