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Home > Featured Photographers > Mathew B. Brady Biography
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Mathew Brady - Mathew B. Brady Biography (1823-1896)

Whether you know his name or not, you've seen Mathew Brady photographs. Mathew Brady is one of the best-known photographers, both in his time and in ours. He was a highly successful portrait photographer who essentially invented documentary photography and photojournalism, and he contributed significantly to our understanding of the U.S. Civil War. Nevertheless, he ultimately sacrificed his wealth, his livelihood and his health for his art and died impoverished and underappreciated.

Mathew Brady learned the new art of photography as a teen from inventor Samuel Morse. He quickly perfected the daguerreotype process and opened a portrait studio to much acclaim on Broadway in New York City in 1844. He convinced many of the most powerful and famous people of the day to sit for his portraits, including presidents, political leaders, businessmen, writers, military generals and more. He was a master at marketing his craft, luring buyers into his studio by lining it with portraits of the social and political elite and calling it a "Hall of Fame." Far more than just a business venture, Brady felt photography was his calling and it was his duty to historically document the people who were shaping America. He became one of the first people to document history with the camera. After winning the presidential election, Abraham Lincoln even credited the distribution of Brady’s carte de visite portraits of him for winning the election.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Photo by Mathew Brady

Mathew Brady Portrait Gallery on Broadway in New York City

General George Custer Photo by Mathew Brady

Cornelius Vanderbilt from a daguerreotype by Mathew Brady Mathew Brady's Portrait Gallery
Broadway and Tenth Street in New York City

Civil War General George A. Custer from a wet collodian glass negative by Mathew Brady

In 1861, at the height of his career as a portrait photographer with several large studios and a considerable fortune, Mathew Brady turned his focus to the Civil War. He later said, "I had to go. A spirit in my feet said 'Go,' and I went." He hired 18 photographers, supplied each of them with a full wagon photographic studio, and set out to document the realities of war. Photographers such as Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’ Sullivan took on the job. Along with Brady, these men are now regarded as early masters of photography.  While his photographers documented most of the war, they were under contract to attach Brady’s name to every image taken. Brady sank all of his energy, his fortunes and ultimately his health into the cause of documenting the Civil War in photographs. He’s said to have spent over $100,000 on the effort, at a time when the average American made $300 a year.

Mathew Brady photo outfit outside of Petersburg, VA.


One of the Mathew Brady photo crews outside of Petersburg, VA.

In 1862 Mathew Brady presented his photographs from the Battle of Antietam to the public in New York City, entitling the exhibition "The Dead of Antietam." For the first time, average citizens saw the carnage of war. Since the photos required long exposures, the photos captured the moments before and after most of the action. The public saw the vibrancy of life in the faces of those prior to battle, juxtaposed with the gruesome images of contorted corpses on the battlefield. The New York Times commented, “If he [Brady] has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along our streets, he has done something very like it.” While traditional journalists were sending tales filled with half-truths romanticizing the war, Brady’s photographs spoke an undeniable and never before witnessed truth about how destructive and grotesque war is.
 

Civil War Photos by Mathew Brady and His Team of Photographers.
U.S. Civil War Union Observation Balloon Soldiers of 4th New York heavy Artillery loading 24-pdr. siege gun Photo Battlefield at Antietam on the day of battle photo
Union observation balloon. Soldiers of 4th New York heavy Artillery loading 24-pdr. siege gun. Battlefield at Antietam on the day of battle. This is the only known photo during a battle of the Civil War.
Ambulance Drill in the Field Photo Civil War African American Infantry Soldiers Civil War Confederate Casualties at Antietam Photo
Ambulance drill in the field. 1st African American infantry unit. Civil War Confederate casualties at Antietam.

After the war Mathew Brady found that people preferred to forget the war, and his expectation that his war photographs would be treasured and reap him financial reward proved elusive during his lifetime. Within a few years, he was forced to file bankruptcy. He eventually sold his glass negatives of the war to the United States government and received a grant from Congress for the rights to his photographs. His total take of just over $25,000 wasn’t enough to cover his debts. By the time of his death in 1896, his contributions to photography and the documentation of U.S. history were recognized, but certainly underappreciated. His glass negatives in the hands of the government had been allowed to severely degrade, and a majority of the collection had been split up and sold off. He died poor and in relative obscurity.

Today we more fully recognize Brady's contributions to photography, journalism and history. The majority of his images have been acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington D.C.



Buy a Mathew Brady Collection Photo
We offer a broad selection of Mathew Brady photos on our website that we have painstakingly restored to remove significant dust, scratches, and in many cases, cracks in the original glass plate negative. We're also happy to print the original un-restored image on request. If you’re interested in another photo by Mathew Brady, just
contact us. We have hundreds of images currently in the editing and restoration process and have access to much more of the Brady Collection.



Robert's Recommended Websites on Mathew Brady:

“Mathew Brady’s Portraits,” from The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery
This is a very impressive site from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. You can go through Brady’s virtual gallery, read about the subjects of each of his photographs, and learn how Brady and his contemporaries made photographs (long before Kodak, this required a wagon full of chemicals and equipment).

Mathew Brady Bio on Dickenson College Website
A pretty good essay, presumably by a student at Dickenson College

“Brady’s Portrait of Grant,” by Jeff Galipeaux
Great piece on Brady inventing candid portraiture in June, 1864, when he captured a candid (or more specifically awkwardly posed) shot of General U.S. Grant in the field.


And if you need more online material, there's always Google:
Google
 
Web www.mcmahanphoto.com



Robert's Recommended Books on Mathew Brady (these open a new window to Amazon.com):








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