Even before the onslaught of the Civil War, Matthew Brady understood the connection between photography and death. The strength of the emerging medium lay in its ability to preserve a single moment in time, creating a visual memory that can seemingly outlive both the subject and author. In the 1850’s, Brady — arguably more of a natural businessman and promoter than artistic experimenter — tried to win over potential customers with advertisements that morbidly warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.” When war broke out, this tagline turned into a prophecy fulfilled: Brady’s studios experienced a profitable boom as newly enlisted Union soldiers waited in line for hours to take tintype portrait pictures for family and loved ones in case they did not return from the carnage.
Although he died penniless, Brady took the photos of Lincoln later used for American currency.
Brady first studied photography under Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and Morse code.
Whether he sensed financial opportunity — incorrectly, it would later turn out — or the weight of the moment, Brady decided to tether his reputation as an artist to the bloodiest war in American history. In his career, Brady photographed nearly every president, including the portrait of Abraham Lincoln now featured on the five-dollar bill, as well as notable subjects like Walt Whitman, Clara Barton and Frederick Douglass. Yet his enduring legacy is of the death and devastation on the battlefields of the Civil War. Even his more humane portraits of the war featuring somber soldiers speak to the depth of loss and trauma of the soul. Perhaps the most famous instance of such is the picture of Robert E. Lee taken almost immediately after his surrender at Appomattox.
“It is good that war is so horrible, or we might grow to like it.” – Robert E. Lee
It was only due to the wife of Ulysses Grant that Brady and his assistants were allowed to accompany the army behind enemy lines.
To some extent, Brady and his team of assistants focused on the corpses and gory aftermath of battles out of necessity. Although they created the mobile darkrooms known as “Whatizzit Wagons” in order to follow regiments from camp to conflict, capturing the fighting in real time was still outside the technical capabilities of photography. There was also the added risk of personal danger for the photographers. Later commentators have criticized Brady for not actually attending many of the battles he chronicled, yet he certainly was present at the First Battle of Bull Run. He not only fled the scene under a cloud of gunfire but also became a minor scapegoat for the Union’s defeat when his camera equipment was allegedly mistaken for enemy cannons. The bodies of fallen soldiers also offered another hidden advantage as subjects: portraiture of this time required subjects to sit perfectly still. Dead men, in a sense, proved ideal subjects.
George Custer with his friend, classmate, and Confederate prisoner James Washington.
“War is hell.” – William Tecumseh Sherman
This last fact, though seemingly glib, is true. Brady and his studio’s work provides an invaluable record of the Civil War; it’s the reason he’s considered the father of photojournalism. Yet it’s the photos of the dead that continue to move us more than 150 years later. The blurriness and literal fog of war that obscures so many other photos is lifted from the photos of battlefield corpses, presenting the viewer with an unfiltered look at the human condition and the devastation of war. Brady’s most notable exhibit during his own lifetime was The Dead at Antietam which ran in his New York gallery in 1962. While there are legitimate questions about authorship and artistic innovation — or even how much credit Brady deserves considering his failing eyesight — there is little room for debate about the power of these photographs to preserve, somewhat ironically, the lives of the dead subjects they depict.