Mathew Brady – A Fountainhead for Photography

Day 253 of Colourisation Project – January 15

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

The inaugural issue of the Photographic Art-Journal in 1851 described Mathew B. Brady as the ‘fountainhead’ of the young profession of portrait photography.

Heralded by many as one of the most popular photographers of the 19th-century, Brady was celebrated for his portraits of politicians and his graphic photographs of the American Civil War. Yet he died this day, January 15, in 1896, alone, penniless and feeling under-appreciated.

Mathew Brady

Photographer: Levin C. Handy – Mathew Brady 1875 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Brady was one of the first American photographers to use photography to chronicle national history. Brady employed a staff of about 20 photographers and dispatched them across the country with mobile studios and darkrooms to capture first-hand the war of brother against brother.

Brady and his associates, most notably Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, James Gibson and Timothy O’Sullivan, produced more than 10,000 images revealing the stark reality of war, capturing scenes of camp life, war preparations, the moments just prior to battle, and the aftermath of battle, primarily highlighting its gruesome carnage.

The only element missing was men in actual battle.  Photography was still in its infancy and the technology of the day required subjects to keep still to avoid motion blur. Therefore battle scenes were a no-go zone. Hence a lot of heart rendering images of corpses!

Brady’s work also included portraits of generals and politicians on both sides of the conflict. The collection of images acquired and published represents one of the greatest photographic records of a major historical event.

Brady’s role in this vast project was mainly to project manage. The majority of photos were taken by his assistants. He photographed only occasionally on such battlefields as Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Brady shared credit with a few of his photographers but many weren’t credited for their work and consequently his name is associated with many photographs he didn’t take.

Long before the Civil War (1861-1865) came along Brady had opened his own studio in New York in 1844 and was at the peak of his success as a portrait photographer. Not many photographers can boast that they have photographed 18 of the 19 American Presidents from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley. (The exception was the 9th President, William Henry Harrison, who died in office three years before Brady started his Photographic Collection.)

See earlier stories for Brady’s portraits of Presidents, Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Johnson, and writer, Charles Dickens.

In 1862 Brady shocked America by exhibiting these photos in his New York Studio, eliciting a period of interest and curiosity in the ravages of war. By the end of the War however, the war-weary American public no longer wanted to be reminded of the Civil War that split the nation in half. They did not want to bear witness to the graphic images of thousands of innocent lives lost and strewn across battlefields.

In George Hobart‘s Masters of Photography: Mathew Brady (1984), American physician and poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, after searching through the dead of Antietam for his son, is quoted as saying,

“Let him who wishes to know what the war is look at this series of illustrations.  These wrecks of manhood thrown together in careless heaps or ranged in ghastly rows for burial were but alive yesterday…. Many people would not look through this series.  Many, having seen it and dreamed of its horrors, would lock it up in some secret drawer.”

He was of course referring to Brady’s images. To make matters worse for Brady, the government did not purchase the master-copies, as he had anticipated. Brady had undertaken this historical project believing that the state and the public would be interested in purchasing the photographs after the war. Brady never recovered from the loss of the private fortune he invested in this project.

In 1875, Brady eventually persuaded the government to buy his collection for the archives.  After a vote in Congress he was offered $25,000, a pittance compared to $100,000 he had invested.

In his final years, Brady said, “No one will ever know what I went through to secure those negatives. The world can never appreciate it. It changed the whole course of my life.”

Brady died on this day, January 15, in 1896, penniless, under-appreciated and alone in a hospital charity ward. Levin Corbin Handy, Brady’s nephew by marriage, took over his photography business after his death.  (Handy is the author of today’s portrait for colourisation.)

Fortunately, Brady’s work in comprehensively providing a photo documentation of the Civil War does not go unrecognised today. Thanks to the US National Archives and Records Administration which makes available on-line over 6,000 digitized images from the Civil War, the world can at least pay respect to his important work and acknowledge what it took to capture those images. His legacy is enormous and in safe hands.


“From the first, I regarded myself as under obligation to my country to preserve the faces of its historic men and mothers.”  –  Mathew Brady

This entry was posted in American Civil War, Colorization, Colourisation, History, Photography, USA and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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