Weekly Comment: Irishman Matthew Brady & the Founding of American Photography

Self portrait of Civil War Photographer Mathew Brady, who was probably born in Ireland, c. 1875. (Library of Congress)

By Tom Deignan
August 19, 2016

Today is World Photo Day, celebrated for the 177th anniversary of the French Academy of Sciences announced the invention of the daguerrotype. This article has been excerpted and adapted from “Portraits of a Nation at War” (October / November 2013).


Thanks to Mathew Brady and his team of photographers – including Irish immigrant Timothy O’Sullivan and Scottish immigrant Alexander Gardner – we are able to better comprehend the full horror of the Civil War.

Although Brady actually made a few field photographs during the conflict, he commissioned and published, under his own name and imprint, negatives made by an ever-expanding team of field operators, chief among them being Gardner and O’Sullivan.

The battlefield dead and the shocking portraits of the maimed and injured garner the most attention, but there are also poetic landscape shots, made all the more evocative by the knowledge that they were the sites of some of the bloodiest battles.

Timothy O’Sullivan’s “Pennsylvania Light Artillery, Battery B, Petersburg, Virginia,” which is one of the few “action” shots of the Civil War.

Timothy O’Sullivan’s “Pennsylvania Light Artillery, Battery B, Petersburg, Virginia,” which is one of the few “action” shots of the Civil War.

Constrained as they were by the limits of the equipment and the long exposure time that it took to properly transpose these images onto the glass negatives typically used in the field, these early war photographers were most effective when chronicling things that did not move – ruins, dead bodies, tents – which makes one photograph by O’Sullivan all the more interesting.

Titled “Pennsylvania Light Artillery, Battery B, Petersburg, Virginia,” O’Sullivan attempts the extraordinary for that period – an action shot. “Whether or not Company B were truly under fire or just drilling is moot,” the exhibit’s caption writer notes correctly.

These early photographs made by Brady and company changed the way news was reported and distributed. The first broadside illustrated with a photograph appeared following Lincoln’s assassination. This was a photograph of Booth tipped onto a sheet and posted around the country with news of the atrocity and the $100,000 reward offered for the capture of Booth and his accomplices.

In Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation, biographer Robert Wilson explains that information about Brady’s youth and Irish roots are scarce, in part because “Brady himself was never much help on his origins,”  but he does attest that “Brady was born around 1823 to an Irish immigrant named Andrew Brady and his wife, Julia, in Warren County, New York.”

[Ed. In August 2015, a sign that marked Johnsburg, Warren County, went missing, sparking new research into Brady’s place of birth. Throughout his life, Brady maintained he was born in New York, though no physical documentation exists of Brady’s birth in New York. Following new research after the disappearance of the Johnsburg sign, some historians now believe Brady was born in Ireland, citing an 1855 New York State census, a 1860 national census, and Brady’s own 1863 draft record, all of which list his place of birth as Ireland. Speaking with the New York Times, Mary Panzer said that “from the new documents, I have no doubt that Mathew Brady was born in Ireland to Andrew and Julia Brady.”]

Mathew Brady 1863 draft record. National Archives.

Mathew Brady 1863 draft record. National Archives.

Ironically, this pioneer of visual imagery developed a severe eye ailment as a child and was left nearly blind. “I met a Dr. Hinckley, who restored my sight, though my eyes were never very strong,” Brady later recalled. The poor eyesight is likely one reason Brady wrote so few letters and seemed to keep no journals, thus making details of his early life difficult to assemble.

Wilson does describe an important moment in Brady’s life when, in the late 1830s, he met up with Samuel F. B. Morse. Though best known as the inventor of the telegraph, Morse was also dabbling in daguerrotypes, the forerunner to photography. Brady would later credit Morse for helping him learn, then perfect, this new technology, which had only been invented in 1837. Ironically, Morse was not only a technological whiz but also, as Wilson notes, a fierce opponent of immigrants, especially Irish Catholics  (he even ran for mayor in 1836 as a nativist party candidate). Perhaps Brady’s unwillingness to talk about his early life had to do with the anti-Irish bias prevalent at that time. Would Morse have helped him if he knew Brady’s background?

By 1844, Brady had his own daguerrotype studio in Manhattan, dedicated to creating portraits. According to Wilson, Brady was able to persuade prominent members of mid-19th century American society to sit for portraits because he was so charming, and skilled at cultivating friendships with the bold-faced names of his day.

Thus, when the Civil War broke out, Brady was well-positioned to visually record some of the most important moments in American history – photos that retain their power to this day, as evidence in many of the beautiful and harrowing images collected in “Photography and the American Civil War.”

Life after the Civil War, for Brady, was not so kind. His fortunes – and health – declined steadily, and he was living in near poverty when he died in 1894. He is buried, next to his wife, in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. ♦

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