Review of Robert Wilson's "Mathew Brady"

tags: Jim Cullen, Robert Wilson, Mathew Brady, Civil War photography, Alexander Gardner

Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. His next book, A Brief History of the Modern Media, will be published next year by Wiley-Blackwell.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mathew Brady, who spent most of his adult life at the center of an emergent modern celebrity culture, is how little is known about him. His date of birth is unknown, as is much of his family life. Many of the most famous photographs associated with him are of uncertain provenance; his relationship with his peers have long been debated. And yet there is little question that Brady shaped the visual imagination of the nineteenth century. Amid ongoing uncertainty over exactly what he did, there is nevertheless substantial consensus that he was a major artist. That was true in his time, and remains true in ours.

In this relatively short, readable and incisive biography, American Scholar editor Robert Wilson deals with the dearth of information about Brady's life in two principal ways. The first is to mine the documentary record about which there is confidence with care and flair, analyzing the visual choices Brady made in the photographs he produced or supervised, and the context in which he chose to present them. (Many Brady photographs are reproduced in the book, though one can't help but wish there were more.) The other is compensate for the lack of record of Brady's inner life by situating in him in his time. To a great extent, this means looking at the careers of figures like Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan, who began their careers as Brady's proteges but later became his rivals. (At times the book reads like it should have been titled Brady's Boys, a nod to Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson's 1996 book The Murrow Boys, about the pioneers of broadcast journalism.) Wilson acknowledges arguments that Brady exploited these people and that his relationships with them were marked by hard feelings, but regards them as exaggerations at best. In his telling Brady was no saint, but at worst he worked within the mores of people in his profession at the time.

The son of Irish immigrants from upstate New York, Brady moved to Manhattan as a young man and apparently benefited from the tutelage of Samuel Morse, who dabbled in early photography on the road to inventing the telegraph. He opened a gallery in downtown New York in the 1840s, shrewdly exploiting what were apparently excellent social skills and building a reputation by offering to photograph prominent people for free as a means of building up his business. Before the Civil War he was already established as a leading figure in the field, a portraitist known for his images of figures ranging from presidents to the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, whose 1850s tour of the United States made her the Taylor Swift of her time. 

What it actually means to call such portraits his is a little complicated, however. Brady rarely operated cameras himself. He made technical decisions about matters like lighting, and he thought carefully about how his subjects would be posed and framed. He sometimes made his imprint by literally entering the picture. His studio -- he sometimes had two, one in New York and another in Washington -- was a bustling commercial operation employing a relatively large staff. He was like  modern film director, producer and studio head rolled up into one -- like, say, Steven Spielberg.

Brady of course is best known for his role in documenting the American Civil War. Again, however, he was rarely in the middle of the action; as Wilson notes, Brady's presence at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 was apparently a sufficiently harrowing experience that he worked hard to avoid repeating, even if he did return to the front in subsequent years, notably to Gettysburg in the aftermath of that battle. Wilson notes that even stipulating the obvious technical and logistical obstacles facing Civil War photographers, there are surprisingly few images of actual warfare. Photographers like Gardner, who actually worked for the U.S. government (doing things like copying maps) even while he worked for Brady, preferred to focus on more static subjects like the dead, and even here there appears to have been a more limited appetite for such images by the public than is commonly acknowledged. Wilson makes a compelling case for the quality of Brady's own photography, notably in his exceptional portrait of Robert E. Lee, taken days after he surrendered at Appomattox, a professional coup rooted in connections he had forged decades before.

Brady's postwar life is marked by ebbing prominence and mounting financial difficulties. He continued to enjoy the esteem of figures like Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, even as he found himself in increasingly narrow personal straits. With great difficulty, he convinced the U.S. government to buy his work, but mismanagement and possible graft undermined the value of the sale, both in terms of the compensation Brady reaped and the way his work was handled. Wilson has slightly more of a documentary record to work with in this phase of Brady's life. The story he tells is a melancholy one.

But it is nevertheless a valuable one. Amid a Civil War centennial and a prominent exhibition of Civil War photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring and summer, Wilson's book is a welcome and overdue tribute to a man whose achievements are often noted but rarely plumbed. It's one that's likely to last.

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