Mathew Brady - The Father of Photojournalism

18 January 1864 - Washington, DC

Today I had my portrait taken by one of the greatest photographers who ever lived--Mathew Brady. I found his studio at 352 Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington.

No one, not even Brady knows when he was born for sure (1822 most likely) to poor Irish immigrants. When was sixteen-years-old he moved to New York City to find his fortune. There he discovered the new art form of photography and opened a studio in 1844. By 1845 he opened a gallery of all the rich and famous people he had taken portraits of.

Brady started this studio, just a few blocks from the Capitol Building, to be closer to the real history makers. He is the photographer of senators, foreign dignitaries, and presidents. He is Abraham Lincoln’s favorite photographer. Just about anybody who is anybody in the mid-19th century has had their portrait taken by Mathew Brady. The walls of his studio look like a “Who’s Who”.

President Lincoln by Mathew Brady
I was surprised to find Brady at his studio. “I thought you would be out on the battlefield taking photographs?”

He smiled at me as he set up his camera. “I can’t be everywhere at once. I have a few assistants that follow the army with portable darkrooms. And I let it be known I’ll buy negatives from freelancers--from either side. To be honest, my eyesight is getting bad. I’m probably more useful staying in Washington and managing the project and storing the negatives and photographs.

A Brady photography wagon and crew
“The project?” I asked.

“Do you have any idea how fortunate we are to have photography at this point in time? The camera is the eye of history and I feel I have an obligation to my country to record this war. Future generations will be able to see what it was really like.”

“Erm, yes. You do take quite a few photographs of corpses.”

“I would take photographs of the battles themselves, but people have to stand still or I only get a blur. Dead men don’t move. I suppose I could stage a battle scene with soldiers posing, but that would be a lie. The public thinks war is heroic and noble. It’s gory and men die.”

“Yes, I suppose you are right. Before photographs the only visual record we had of battles was romantic paintings of generals dying like Shakespearean actors. Your battlefield photographs are a real eye-opener for the public.”

Mathew Brady after Battle of Bull Run
“Yes. The aftermath of the first battle of Bull Run was an eye-opener for me, too. I nearly ran into trouble myself.”

“What made you foolish enough to go into battle?”

“You sound like my friends. They did everything to dissuade me. They told me I was risking my life and my fortune. But I had to go. A spirit in my feet said 'Go,' and I went."

“So, you have not been sitting in this studio the whole time then?”

“No, but like a said my eyesight is failing. It is hard to avoid trouble if you cannot see it in time. Poor Juliette, that’s the missus, was so worried I decided not to put her through that again--well, not too much anyway. There are a lot of forts and hospitals and camps for me to record near Washington. We are not far from the frontline, as you are aware.”

“Isn’t hiring assistants and buying negatives expensive?”

“Indeed. I don’t know how many thousands of dollars I have spent so far. I am gambling my fortune on this project. I know in the end it will be worth it. I’m sure Congress will be more than happy to compensate me. Now if you will sit perfectly still, sir.”

I froze, not wanting any of my face to blur by moving. Poor Brady. I couldn’t tell him that he would spend $100,000 dollars on his collection. At this moment his photos are in great demand, but by war’s end everyone will be so sick of battle, no one will want to look at his photographs. He will be forced to sell his New York studio. In 1875 Congress will finally relent and pay Brady only $25,000 for his collection of over 10,000 plates, only a quarter of what he spent on it.

In 1887 Brady will suffer an even worse blow when his beloved wife, Juliette, will die. Brady will take his last breath in 1896 in the charity ward of a New York hospital, broke and nearly blind, a forgotten man. Well, not completely forgotten. His funeral will be paid for by grateful veterans whose story he had recorded at great sacrifice to himself.

And I think if I told him the future, Mathew Brady would do it anyway. Especially if I told him how priceless his photos will become to future historians. They are the best record we have of the Civil War. No wonder he is considered the Father of Photojournalism.

Mathew Brady’s National Portrait Gallery Virtual Tour

Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs from the National Archive
(photos taken after battles might be disturbing to some readers--they certainly disturb me)

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