Brady’s images still resonate on Civil War sesquicentennial

Brady’s images still resonate on Civil War sesquicentennial

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Mathew Brady's photos

Soldier group showing the "whatizzit" wagon, which was one of Brady's mobile darkrooms.

JOHNSBURG -- He's widely considered the father of photojournalism, the man who brought the bloody images of warfare to anyone who wanted to see. And on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Johnsburg couldn't be happier to claim him.

The Civil War was the first war that afforded visual access to far-flung populations. It was Matthew Brady, and his team of ambitious photographers who staffed his studios in Washington and New York City, that forever transformed how wars are covered and perceived by the public, experts say.

"It (the photography) had a complex role," said Christine Bell, a professor of art history at Northwestern University who specializes in the use of art and photography in the Civil War. "They were all northern photographers, loyalists, who were pretty aware of their civic duty to report on what's happening and helping raise support for the Union cause."

Although a few fuzzy photographs had been taken during the Crimean War between Russia and Great Britain in the 1850s, it was the American Civil War that actually brought the sometimes gruesome images of war to the masses.

"They were the first to take pictures of casualties on the battlefield," Bell said of Brady and his photographers. "It was really the first ‘living room' war."

The end goal, though, was to make a profit.

"In reality, Brady was a businessman, first and foremost," said Jessica Rubin, an educator and researcher at the Adirondack Museum. "Thanks to Brady, the Civil War is an illustrated one."

Brady and his staff, including now-famous photographers Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan and Thomas Roche, captured the piles of dead soldiers at Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the hanging of Lincoln's assassins shortly after the war's end.

Photographic technology had been evolving for several decades prior to the April 1861 standoff at Fort Sumter. But it had reached a point that it was no longer unyielding or bulky.

Brady, a Johnsburg native, seized on a very Victorian groundswell of public demand for the real faces of war, sending his men out in search of the most visceral and powerful images.

He was the era's equivalent of the Associated Press, with reproductions of his work, and that of his agents, reaching millions in newspapers and the popular periodical, Harper's Weekly.

Postcard-like images were also available through the mail. Bell said many people would collect pictures of their favorite generals, a precursor to baseball cards.

Brady's work replaced romanticized oil-on-canvas depictions of the great battles that preceded the Civil War, usually portraying bloodless bayonet charges or moments of victory.

He captured the face of the rank and file, not only the victorious general, clad in his best dress uniform. There were few ethics for Victorian journalists, and Brady's men often moved or positioned the bodies for more powerful shots, Rubin said.

Brady, working primarily in his New York City and Washington-based studios, photographed the most influential figures of his day while his photographers captured the bloody face of battle for a hungry public, Bell said.

He was known to visit the field though, taking portraits of rank-and-file Union soldiers.

Lincoln, along with Union Commanding Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and a host of union soldiers and generals, sat for repeated sessions with the Johnsburg native. He also hosted sessions involving other mid-19th century icons, including Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman.

Brady did visit the field and spent significant time photographing Union Gen. Ambrose Burnsides and his men as they fought their way across Virginia.

It's from one of his sessions with Lincoln that the picture was taken that now graces the U.S. $5 bill.

Only the Union victories were well photographed, Bell said, because northern photographers wouldn't venture into a Confederate-held field.

The power of the images sometimes overwhelmed those geographically removed from the fighting on the Mason-Dixon line.

"(If Brady) has not brought bodies and lain them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it," The New York Times wrote in 1863.

Brady's collection became the model for battlefield photography and defined war coverage well into the 20th century, Bell said.


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