Mathew Brady dedicated his life to photographing the Civil War. At his death in 1896 he was penniless and unappreciated. Now, over a century later, his negatives are prized mementos of a defining time in our country’s history.
As a young man, Mathew Brady moved to New York City and began working as a jewelry case maker. During this time he was introduced to the inventor Samuel Morse, who showed Brady the daguerreotype photo process.
Soon after this, Brady’s interest and affinity toward photography soared. He opened his own studio in 1844, and by the next year began exhibiting his portraits of famous Americans. Soon enough, Brady had become one of America’s most well-known photographers. In 1856 he opened a new studio in Washington D. C., a better location for photographing prominent leaders, both American and foreign.
At the height of his popularity as a portrait photographer, Brady turned his attention to the Civil War. He organized a corps of photographers to sally forth with the soldiers, taking photographs of their camps, generals, and troops. Friends warned him of the dangers of being so close to the action of battle, but he persisted anyway, saying, “I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.”
Though many photographs from this war are attributed to Brady, he usually only personally photographed the most prominent subjects while his troop of photographers did the rest. Brady worked more as a project manager, supervising the group, preserving their negatives, and buying other negatives to make his collection as comprehensive as possible.
Brady’s Civil War photographs captured the true devastation of the war, bringing the terribly reality of the conflict to many Americans living comfortably away from the fronts. Then, suddenly, the fighting was over, and interest in Brady’s images vanished. Who wanted to see the violence and death of a finished war, still so fresh in the people’s minds?
Brady had thrown everything he had into creating his Civil War photos, including a rather sizable fortune. He had anticipated that the government would want his collection of negatives, but they declined. With no one purchasing his photos, Brady fell into bankruptcy and was essentially forgotten.