How the “First Photojournalist,” Mathew Brady, Shocked the Nation with Photos from the Civil War

In her 1938 essay “Three Guineas,” Vir­ginia Woolf won­dered “whether when we look at the same pho­tographs we feel the same things.” Woolf half-hoped that gris­ly images of the dead from the Span­ish Civ­il War might help put an end to the spread­ing glob­al con­flict. She rec­og­nized, writes Susan Son­tag in Regard­ing the Pain of Oth­ers, photography’s abil­i­ty “to viv­i­fy the con­dem­na­tion of war” and to “bring home, for a spell, a por­tion of its real­i­ty to those who have no expe­ri­ence of war at all.”

Math­ew Brady, the man cred­it­ed as the “father of pho­to­jour­nal­ism,” had no such lofty ambi­tions at the begin­ning of the Civ­il War. At first, he offered to pho­to­graph sol­diers before they left for the bat­tle­field, to pre­serve their pre-war image for pos­ter­i­ty should they not return. (He cyn­i­cal­ly adver­tised his ser­vices with the line, “You can­not tell how soon it may be too late.”) Brady was already a suc­cess­ful pho­tog­ra­ph­er and had tak­en por­traits of Abra­ham Lin­coln, Andrew Jack­son, Daniel Web­ster, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Hav­ing stud­ied under Samuel Morse, who brought the daguerreo­type tech­nique to the U.S., Brady opened his first stu­dio in New York in 1844 and became high­ly sought after. He might have safe­ly wait­ed out the war in the city, oper­at­ing a thriv­ing busi­ness, but, as he remem­bered lat­er, “I had to go. A spir­it in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.” Brady took his peti­tion all the way to Lin­coln, who approved it on the con­di­tion that Brady finance the doc­u­men­ta­tion him­self. “At his own expense,” notes the Amer­i­can Bat­tle­field Trust, “he orga­nized a group of pho­tog­ra­phers and staff to fol­low the troops as the first field-pho­tog­ra­phers.”

Soon after, “in 1862, Brady shocked the nation when he dis­played the first pho­tographs of the car­nage of the war in his New York Stu­dio in an exhib­it enti­tled ‘The Dead of Anti­etam.’ These images, pho­tographed by Alexan­der Gard­ner and James F. Gib­son, were the first to pic­ture a bat­tle­field before the dead had been removed and the first to be dis­trib­uted to a mass pub­lic.” The New York Times respond­ed as Woolf would sev­en­ty-six years lat­er, writ­ing of the pho­tos:

Mr. Brady has done some­thing to bring home to us the ter­ri­ble real­i­ty and earnest­ness of war. If he has not brought bod­ies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done some­thing very like it.

Shocked the nation may have been, but the war dragged on three more years. Brady and his team not only pho­tographed the dead—they cap­tured every­thing from hot-air bal­loons to pon­toon bridges to breast­works to win­ter huts and wag­on trains. Brady went bank­rupt fund­ing the mak­ing of over 10,000 plates, many of them har­row­ing depic­tions of the war’s bru­tal­i­ty, before the U.S. gov­ern­ment final­ly bought them for $25,000.

The Pub­lic Domain Review has anoth­er har­row­ing col­lec­tion of Brady’s daguerreo­types—por­traits he took before the war that have decayed and dis­tort­ed, as have a great many of Brady’s pho­tos of the war dead. These images “were extreme­ly sen­si­tive to scratch­es, dust, hair, etc, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the rub­bing of the glass cov­er if they glue hold­ing it in place dete­ri­o­rat­ed.” Despite pho­tog­ra­phers’ promis­es to the con­trary, “this fix­ing” of the image for pos­ter­i­ty “was far from per­ma­nent.” See more of Brady’s Civ­il War pho­tographs at the Nation­al Archives.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The His­to­ry of the U.S. Civ­il War Visu­al­ized Month by Month and State by State, in an Info­graph­ic from 1897

Eerie 19th Cen­tu­ry Pho­tographs of Ghosts: See Images from the Long, Strange Tra­di­tion of “Spir­it Pho­tog­ra­phy”

The Civ­il War & Recon­struc­tion: A Free Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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