Biography | Bibliography
Mathew B. Brady was one of the most celebrated 19th century American photographers, best known for his portraits of celebrities and the documentation of the American Civil War. He is credited with being the father of photojournalism.
Brady was born in Warren County, New York, to Irish immigrant parents, Andrew and Julia Brady. He moved to New York City at the age of 17. By 1844, he had his own photography studio in New York, and by 1845, Brady began to exhibit his portraits of famous Americans. He opened a studio in Washington, D.C. in 1849, where he met Juliette Handy, whom he married in 1851. Brady’s early images were daguerreotypes, and he won many awards for his work; in the 1850s ambrotype photography became popular, which gave way to the albumen print, a paper photograph produced from large glass negatives most commonly used in the American Civil War photography.
Brady’s efforts to document the Civil War on a grand scale by bringing his photographic studio right onto the battlefields earned Brady his place in history. Despite the obvious dangers, financial risk, and discouragement of his friends he is later quoted as saying “I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.” His first popular photographs of the conflict were at the First Battle of Bull Run, in which he got so close to the action that he only just avoided being captured.
He employed Alexander Gardner, James Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, William Pywell, George N. Barnard, Thomas C. Roche and seventeen other men, each of whom were given a traveling darkroom, to go out and photograph scenes from the Civil War. Brady generally stayed in Washington, D.C., organizing his assistants and rarely visited battlefields personally. This may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that Brady’s eyesight began to deteriorate in the 1850s.
In October 1862, Brady presented an exhibition of photographs from the Battle of Antietam in his New York gallery entitled, “The Dead of Antietam.” Many of the images in this presentation were graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation totally new to America. This was the first time that many Americans saw the realities of war in photographs as distinct from previous “artists’ impressions”.
During the war Brady spent over $100,000 to create over 10,000 plates. He expected the U.S. government to buy the photographs when the war ended, but when the government refused to do so he was forced to sell his New York City studio and go into bankruptcy. Congress granted Brady $25,000 in 1875, but he remained deeply in debt. Depressed by his financial situation, loss of eyesight and devastated by the death of his wife in 1887, he became very lonely. Brady died penniless in the charity ward of Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, at five o’clock, on January 15, 1896, from complications following a streetcar accident.
Brady’s funeral was financed by veterans of the 7th New York Infantry. He was buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Levin Corbin Handy, Brady’s nephew by marriage, took over his uncle’s photography business after his death.
Webb Garrison, Brady’s Civil War: A Collection of Memorable Civil War Images Photographed by Mathew Brady and His Assistants, New York: The Lyons Press, 2000.
James D. Horan, Mathew Brady: Historian with a Camera, Prineville, OR: Bonanza Books, 1960.
Benson J. Lossing, LL.D., Mathew Brady’s Illustrated History of the Civil War, New York: The Fairfax Press, 1912.
Roy Meredith, Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man: Mathew B. Brady, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1946.
Roy Meredith, The World of Mathew Brady: Portraits of the Civil War Era, Brooke House Publishers, 1976.
Roy Meredith, Mathew Brady’s Portrait of an Era, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.
Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt, Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Mathew Brady and His World, Des Moines, Iowa: Time Life Books, Inc., 1977.
Mary Panzer, Mathew Brady and the Image of History, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1997.
Mary Panzer, Mathew Brady 55, London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2001.
George Sullivan, In the Wake of Battle The Civil War Images of Mathew Brady, London: Prestel Publishers, 2004.