Book review:'Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation' by Robert Wilson

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 8:55am


Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation

by Robert Wilson


Dwight Garner

When Mathew Brady, the US civil war-era photographer, took a portrait, the shutter remained open for 10 to 15 seconds or more, long enough for a bit of wind, or the hint of a smile, to ruin everything.

Brady (1823-96) was America's first great portrait photographer. Those long exposure times were a gift of sorts to a country that was still young. What his images lacked in spontaneity they more than made up for in gravitas. He defined a nation's dignified visual sensibility.

This new biography from Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, is a straightforward and compact volume that has some of the attributes of its subject.

The book is sober history, a flinty chunk of Americana. Almost no one smiled in Brady's photographs. Smiles are elusive, too hard then to bottle. One of the things Wilson makes plain about Brady, however, is that he had a terrific smile.

Brady's charm helped make him the favourite of presidents, generals, celebrities and royalty. He photographed Abraham Lincoln, generals Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee, as well as Mark Twain and politician Daniel Webster. In the 1840s and 1850s, he set up a large gallery in downtown New York. He was "Brady of Broadway".

Not a lot is known about his early life. Brady was raised in New York. His father was an Irish immigrant. Brady made it to Manhattan about the time the daguerreotype did. He manufactured leather cases for photographic equipment before going into the photography business himself, opening his first studio in 1844.

Anyone who has seen Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War knows how beautifully he learned to pan across Brady's photographs from that war, among the first in history to leave a detailed photographic record. The details of Brady's war years are both funny and revealing about the age.

He accompanied the Union Army to its first major battle, at Bull Run, and the experience scared him so much that he lost his Bull Run images in the tumult and rarely went near a battlefield again.

He sent teams of photographers to the war's fronts instead.

There's been abiding controversy about who actually took many of the photographs attributed to Brady. Wilson wades through these issues patiently, almost photo by photo. He mostly comes to his subject's defence. Brady's biggest photographic accomplishment might be the familiar image he took of defeated general Robert E. Lee in Richmond shortly after the South had surrendered at Appomattox.

"It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit," Brady said later in an interview. "I thought that to be the right time for the historic picture."

Brady was right.

"Who but Brady could have pulled off this photographic and journalistic coup?" Wilson asks.

Brady's career went slowly downhill after the war. There were bankruptcies. Some said he drank too much. Even late in life, however, as his health was failing, friends would report things like how "at the sight of me his face lit up with his characteristic winning smile".

Brady's early photographs of Lincoln helped imprint the politician on the public mind. "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president," Lincoln supposedly said, referring to a speech he gave in the Great Hall at Cooper Union during the 1860 campaign. When Lincoln received a request for a photograph, he responded by writing that while he was in New York, "I was taken to one of those places where they get up such things, and I suppose they got my shadow and can multiply copies indefinitely."

Brady understood the history he was helping to make. As an advertisement for one of his portrait services once warned, accurately if heavy-handedly, "You cannot tell how soon it may be too late."

The New York Times