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Mathew B. Brady (studio of) (American, 1823–1896)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American photographer. At the age of 16 he left his home town and moved to nearby Saratoga. There he learnt how to manufacture jewellery cases and met William Page, who taught him the techniques of painting. Impressed by his ability, Page took Brady to New York in 1841 to study with Samuel F. B. Morse at the Academy of Design, and to attend Morse’s school of daguerreotypy; there Brady learnt the details of photographic technique. After experimenting with the medium from 1841 to 1843, Brady set up his Daguerrean Miniature Gallery in New York (1844), where he both took and exhibited daguerreotypes. Very soon he established a considerable reputation and in 1845 won first prize in two classes of the daguerreotype competition run by the American Institute. He concentrated on photographic portraits, especially of famous contemporary Americans, such as the statesman Henry Clay (1849; Washington, DC, Lib. Congr.). In 1847, with his business flourishing, he opened a second studio, in Washington, DC, and in 1850 published his Gallery of Illustrious Americans (New York). These were lithographic portraits of eminent Americans, such as General Winfield Scott and Millard Fillmore, taken from Brady’s original daguerreotypes.

In 1851 Brady contributed a number of daguerreotypes to the Great Exhibition in London, which included the largest photographic display so far held. The Americans took all the top awards, Brady himself winning first prize. While in London, he also learnt of the new wet collodion or ‘wet plate’ process and met one of its leading practitioners, Alexander Gardner. Soon after his return to New York in 1852, the ambrotype (a collodion glass positive with black backing) became his dominant medium. In 1853 he opened a larger gallery in New York and in 1858 added a gallery to his studio in Washington. In 1856, persuaded by Brady, Gardner came to New York, where he was put in charge of the new gallery. He brought with him the details of a process enabling the production of enlargements from wet plate negatives, which allowed Brady to make large ‘Imperial’ size portraits. In 1860 Brady opened the largest of his galleries in New York, called the National Portrait Gallery, and that year he took his famous photograph of Abraham Lincoln (1860; Washington, DC, Lib. Congr.), the first of many, on the occasion of Lincoln’s speech to the Cooper Union. Lincoln, who was elected president the following year, attributed his success to a Brady carte-de-visite.

In 1861, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, Brady gave up his lucrative career as a portrait photographer and decided to devote himself to documenting the events of the war. During the first few months of the following year, he organized and equipped at his own expense several teams of cameramen to send to the numerous sites of conflict. Among the photographers he employed, apart from himself and Gardner, were Timothy O’Sullivan, William R. Pyell, J. B. Gibson, George Cook, David Knox, D. B. Woodbury, J. Reekie and Stanley Morrow. Though working in extremely difficult conditions, Brady and his team were able to cover virtually all the battles and events of the war. Those photographs taken by Brady himself included portraits of the protagonists, such as Robert E. Lee (1865; Washington, DC, Lib. Congr.), taken after his defeat, and numerous images of its horrors, such as On the Antietam Battlefield (1862; Washington, DC, Lib. Congr.). Some of his photographs, such as Dead Confederate Soldier with Gun (1863; Washington, DC, Lib. Congr.), were stereoscopic views.

Brady had embarked on this vast enterprise in the belief that both private individuals and, more importantly, the state would be interested in purchasing the photographs after the war. In fact, the trauma and destruction it caused led to a general desire to forget. Burdened by huge debts, he tried to persuade the government to buy his collection for the archives. It was not until 1875 that it finally did so, after a vote in Congress. The purchase came too late, however: Brady had been forced to sell all his properties except for the one in Washington, which was run by his nephew Levin Handy. Though reduced to poverty, he produced a few further portrait photographs, such as Chiefs of the Sioux Indian Nations (1877; Washington, DC, Lib. Congr.). He sold the last of his galleries in 1895.

From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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