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Mathew B. Brady

Matthew Brady1823 – January 15, 1862

One of the best-known 19th-century American photographers, Mathew B. Brady, is recognized for his portraits of politicians and for his photographs of the American Civil War.

The artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse taught him to take daguerreotypes, and Brady opened his first studio in New York City in 1844, a second in Washington, D.C., four years later; and a third, also in New York City, in 1854.

In 1845 he began to carry out his plan of photographing as many famous persons of his time as he could–including Daniel Webster, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Fenimore Cooper. His collection of presidential portraits attests to the scope of that project. Except for William Henry Harrison, who died only a month after his inauguration, Brady created, copied, or collected the photographs of every U.S. president from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley. This added to the already great prestige of Brady’s fashionable studios, and he won critical fame at home and abroad with the publication of A Gallery of Illustrious Americans (1850).

At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to make a complete record of that conflict. He hired a staff of a score or more photographers, the best-known of whom were Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan. He dispatched his staff throughout the war zones. Although his main activities were directing his cameramen from his Washington office and supervising the operation of his studios, Brady himself probably photographed such battlefields as Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg. He also took memorable photographs of Abraham Lincoln in the field and Robert E. Lee soon after he had surrendered his army at Appomattox, in April 1865.

The Civil War project ruined Brady financially. He had invested $100,000 in it, confident that the government would buy his photographs after the war ended. The government, however, showed no interest. Moreover, the best photographers had left Brady’s organization by then because Brady refused to give them public credit for their work. The financial panic of 1873 forced him to sell his New York City studio and go into bankruptcy. He was unable to pay the storage bill for his negatives; the War Department finally bought them at public auction for $2,840. Through the efforts of his friends in government, however, Brady was finally granted $25,000 by Congress in 1875. Nevertheless, he never regained financial solvency, and he died an alcoholic, alone and forgotten in a hospital charity ward.