Photographing the Civil War: Matthew Brady

civil war camera

Matthew Brady is one of the most popular Civil War photographers and is now highly celebrated; however there was a time where his true-to-life depictions and photos of the war were frowned upon. After the war the public sought to forget  the brutality and gruesome violence of the previous years. As a result, Brady lost much of his notoriety.

Matthew Brady in 1875

Brady has at times been regarded as the founding father of photo journalism. His stylistic pictures of civil war life had a tremendous impact on society during the war, and still do to this day. After all, it was one of the first times that the general public would have been able to see what was really happening to their loved ones on the battlefield. This was the first era in which “portable” photography was possible. The image above shows a similar camera to the one Brady used, and should give you an indication of just how difficult it was to obtain the negatives that he did, and it doesn’t even show his horse drawn mobile dark room.

Brady was originally from Warren County New York. He was born circa 1822, and lived a very long life by the standard of his times, and even so by today’s standards, living to the age of 74, dying in 1896. He lived a decently wealthy life until the end, in which he slipped into poverty before his death.

Several of Matthew Brady’s photographs are well known, and you may have seen some of them yourself. These pieces of Brady photography include the “The Sunken Road” at Antietam from 1862 in which Brady photographed a mass burial grave for fallen soldiers, when this series of photos was revealed to the public for the first time, they showed the gruesome truth of the toll the war was having on the people of the country. Another popular photograph that was not directly related to the war was that of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The photo that Brady took was on February 27th at a speech in New York that was given at the cooper union. The picture is highly valued by historians and photography enthusiasts alike; as this portrait was taken just before the former president was flung into the popularity that resulted in him taking office.

Brady's Image of dead soldiers, taken after the battle of Antietam

After the war, Brady ultimately had a tough time in nearly all aspects of his life. He continued on with his photography alongside his nephew Levin Handy in Washington DC, but the father of photo journalism only barely escaped debt thanks to the purchase of his work by the United States government. He suffered two broken legs in an auto accident, which left him somewhat crippled and from which never fully recovered. Brady died in poverty on January 16th 1896; the funeral was paid for by the New York 7th Regiment Veterans Association. The photographer is now buried next to his wife in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC.


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If you would like more information on Matthew Brady, his works, or Civil War photography in general, check out the links cited below.