The editor of the American Scholar tracks the career of America’s pioneering photographer.
“Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.” Harmless flattery, perhaps, but Abraham Lincoln’s remark testified to the influence of his 1860 speech in New York City and to the widely distributed photograph taken that day by Mathew Brady (circa 1822–1896). With studios in New York and Washington, D.C., and already famous as a portraitist, Brady’s galleries grew to contain a who’s who of 19th-century distinction: writers like Poe, Cooper, Twain and Whitman; presidents from Quincy Adams to McKinley; statesmen like Clay, Calhoun and Webster; military leaders like John C. Fremont and Winfield Scott; and distinguished visitors like the Prince of Wales. Brady lured the well-heeled and, increasingly, the middle class through his doors to be similarly immortalized by the new technology that he and his assistants mastered and advanced. When the Civil War arrived, Brady and his team of photographers went into the field, and their unprecedented, comprehensive images of camp life, battlegrounds and soldiers documented the national catastrophe for all time. Wilson (The Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax—Clarence in the Old West, 2006, etc.) concedes from the beginning that little is known about Brady’s personal life—not even the place or date of his birth—but the author compensates with a thorough tracking and assessment of the professional career, describing for general readers the origins and swift growth of the photographic science, the team of variously skilled workers required to make the earliest images, and the controversies over photo attribution that persist. Wilson paints Brady as the consummate ringmaster, with a Barnum-like talent for selling himself and his product and for gathering and distributing images that made the phrase “photo by Brady” seemingly ubiquitous.
A useful introduction to the man who established photographs as both works of art and important historical documents.