Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation by Robert Wilson

Mathew Brady is a curiously ill-remembered historical figure. Author Timothy Egan groups him with painter George Caitlin and photographer Edward Curtis as among the artists most responsible for our image of 19th century America. The three men also shared singular visions that they pursued without regard for their wealth, and all died bankrupt. In his book Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation, historian Robert Wilson shows that Brady got more and less credit than he deserved for his place is photographic history. He is credited with many images of the American Civil War that he did not actually take. Some were taken by his employees, while others were purchased for his galleries in New York and Washington. He once attempted to take battlefield photographs himself, but his narrow escape from personal danger convinced him that others would do better work in the field.

Why then do people in the 21st century look at Civil War scenes and say "Brady"? To his credit, he taught his photographic methods to most of the men who followed the armies, and he financed the printing and distribution of much of their work. That many of their images carry the Brady stamp was more a marketing act than Brady trying claim credit that was not his to claim. As the executive of a sort of photo bureau, Brady advanced the development of photojournalism.

Where Brady gets less credit is in defining the photographic portrait of his time. Many of the photos we still see in histories and biographies were from Brady's studio. Almost every statesman, general, industrialist, actor, and literary figure from the late 1840s into the 1870s had a Brady portrait. How many of these he actually took or assigned to his stable of photographers is a subject of debate.

While Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation is biographical, it is tempting to call it a history. In the account of the Civil War particularly, Brady nearly disappears while the storyline follows field photographers as they negotiate the hazards of war. Readers learn much American history and relatively little about Brady's personal life. The author points out that Brady became a celebrity without sacrificing his privacy. Historians are still trying to pinpoint Brady's birth and untangle the finances of his studios and galleries. 

Author Robert Wilson says that he wanted to fill a historical gap and expose myths with the writing of his book, and he has done so well. His book is now in many public libraries.

Wilson, Robert. Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation. Bloomsbury, 2013. 273p. ISBN 9781620402030.

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