Andre Cantelmo Photography | Mathew Brady, Historian and Photographer

Mathew Brady, Historian and Photographer

June 03, 2014  •  1 Comment

One of the pleasurable pursuits the wife and I share is hunting antique and salvage shops for hidden treasures. The best places resemble a cluttered attic. All sorts of things from America's past rest here waiting for discovery. Recently I rescued a book from a dust pile. "Mathew Brady, Historian with a Camera", a book by James D. Horan was just sitting there waiting for my hands to dust it off. Mathew Brady worked from a Photographic Gallery at 359 Broadway, which was above Thompson's Saloon in 1859. In the pre Civil War years Mr. Brady entered his Daguerreotypes into competitions which were very popular at the time. These were the early days of Photography when the first aerial photographs were made, with the glass wet plate process. In 1860, Abe Lincoln made his way to the studio on Broadway and sat for a portrait by Brady. This is the phase of Brady's career, which would change from commercial to war correspondent in 1860-61 as the Civil War began. Brady had a burning desire to document the war and knew that it would be very dangerous and expensive. There would also be technical problems with capturing the war on the wet plate process. Imagine what that would have looked like. Mr. Brady, his assistants, a heavy horse drawn wagon, darkroom tent, and several hundred very fragile glass plates, traveling over dirt roads that were not maintained much if at all. Imagine also the challenges the intense heat and cold weather would present inside the darkroom tent.

There are some wonderful photographs contained within this book. The first photo that caught my eye is a copy of a daguerreotype of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, inventor of the daguerreotype. This faded and scratched image dates to 1848. A photograph of Samuel F.B. Morse at the age of 75. Morse was Brady's first instructor in the art of daguerreotype. The next page reveals photographs of Presidents Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and James K. Polk all photographed by Brady. Moving along through the pages past a who's who in American history, we find a rare photograph of the Capitol building without its dome, and another one of the wings of the Capitol building nearing completion. Next a full page photo of President Lincoln, sans beard, taken in Brady's New York Studio on Broadway. The war years bring Gettysburg battlefield photographs and fallen soldiers of both sides, portraits of Generals that led the troops, and an interior shot of the inside of Fort Sumter.

Before the invention of photography, humans either depended upon artists to render images, or their imagination to see what something looked like. The early years of photography brought magic to communication. You could look at a photograph and right before your eyes, an accurate rendition of a President, landscape, cityscape, or battlefield scene. Men like Mathew Brady were chemists as much as artists. They had to be very dedicated and committed to their craft considering the effort involved in moving about and dragging everything with you. Portraits of the day look very stiff and artificial due to the lack of any speed in capturing an image, and motion was nearly impossible. Then there's the glass plates. Travel over dirt roads with ruts, stones, and in bad weather ice or mud must have been a nightmare. It made me think of the lost images. What great photograph did we not get to see because it did not make the journey home?

We are quite privileged to live in the age of digital image capture. We enjoy instant image feedback, high quality lenses, and image editing controls we could only dream of just a few years ago. Just over one hundred and fifty years ago getting a photographic portrait done involved lots of effort and time. Photography has evolved into a more casual process. There are cameras everywhere we go in the form of cell phones. Every event in our lives is documented and published via a social network almost in live time. This unique phenomenon can be a good thing, but clearly there are some photographs that should not have been taken let alone shared publicly. As a society we are becoming more visual. My hope is that we also become more skilled in understanding and appreciating photographs. I certainly hope that we never forget the pioneers of our art, Mathew Brady being one of the better known early photographers.


Patricia Cantelmo(non-registered)
What a great blog, but now everyone knows what we do in our spare time.
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