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portrait and Civil War photographer
Mathew B. Brady was born near Lake George, in Warren County, New York, about 1823, the son of Irish immigrants. He received little formal education while growing up, but did exhibit an early talent for art. In the late 1830's he moved to Saratoga Springs, where he studied painting under artist William Page while also learning to make miniature jewel and watch cases. The two moved to New York City about 1839, where Brady then came under the tutelage of Samuel F.B. Morse, who had just recently begun practicing the craft of photography.
Brady seemed to have a natural gift for the new-fangled device, and by 1844 had opened his own daguerreotype gallery. About a year after opening his gallery, Brady became determined to collect portraits of any and all distinguished persons he could get to sit before his camera. To further his ambition he entered public competitions to attract attention, advertised widely, and began publishing lithographed portraits. And, to make it even easier to get politicians to sit before his camera, he opened a temporary gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1847. Brady's efforts paid off, and by 1850 he had gained a reputation as one of America's greatest portrait photographers. That reputation was made primarily by publication that year of Gallery of Famous Americans, which included images of such notables as John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, John James Audubon, Millard Fillmore, Winfield Scott, and John C. Frémont. At the time of his death, Brady also had the distinction of having photographed every President from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley, with the exception of William Henry Harrison.
In 1851, Brady exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, the first ever international competition among daguerreotypists and photographers. All three of the medals awarded to daguerreotypists went to Americans, including one to Brady for his collection of 48 portraits. While abroad, Brady also learned about the paper and wet paper processes, which he subsequently put into practice in his own studio. In the mid-1850's he brought Alexander Gardner from Scotland to produce huge prints, which proved very popular with the American public. In 1858 he established a permanent branch gallery in Washington, D.C., in which he exhibited and sold the prints.
For all the fame he acquired as a portrait photographer, Brady is probably best remembered today for his photographic record of the Civil War. Using a corp of photographers that at times numbered up to 20, Brady was responsible for more than 3,500 pictures of battle and camp scenes. His collection still provides some of the best contemporary accounts of many of the most important battles of the war, and his photographs of the dead soldiers shocked many. Most of his pictures were subsequently published in the ten-volume work The Photographic History of the Civil War.
Brady had invested much money in his Civil War venture, with little actual return, and by the war's end he was deeply in debt. In 1875 Congress agreed to purchase all of his negatives for $25,000, money which Brady had to use to satisfy some of his debts. By this time Brady was just another portrait photographer, and was having an increasingly difficult time getting clients. He died penniless in New York City on January 15, 1896. Thanks to several friends donating the necessary funds, he escaped burial in a pauper's grave and was interred in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
Most of Brady's negatives are stored in the National Archives and Library of Congress.
This page was last updated on 01/09/2017.