Brady came to New York City at age sixteen; by age seventeen he was a student in the first photography school in America, opened in 1840 by Samuel F. B. Morse. Brady opened his first New York studio in 1844 and immediately began winning awards. One year later he began the very ambitious project of photographing the important Americans of his time. Brady published a volume of 12 portraits of historically important figures, The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, in 1850.
Mathew Brady was an ambitious, hard-working perfectionist, who was hampered by very poor eyesight. During his photographic career he operated two studios in New York and twice operated a studio in Washington, D.C. Because of his impaired vision, the studios employed operators who took photographs as well as a staff of technicians and retouchers. Although most photographs were thought to be taken by the operators, there can be no doubt that they labored under the direction of Mathew Brady, a relationship perhaps analogous to that of the draftsman and the architect. It was the name Mathew Brady that drew the famous to his studio. He photographed princes and presidents, authors and actors, scientists and explorers. Brady photographed Abraham Lincoln many times; Lincoln credited his presidential election to the Cooper-Union speech and Brady’s portrait.
Brady was the first photographer to completely document a war. When, in 1861 it became apparent that war was imminent, Brady received permission from President Lincoln to photograph the Civil War with the understanding he could receive no financial aid from the government. Brady later estimated he had invested $100,000 in his coverage of the Civil War. He equipped 15 to 20 photographers in wagons with assorted cameras, tripods, chemicals and glass plates (Brady was no longer producing daguerreotypes but was using the glass collodion system). Their photographs of the battlefields forever changed how man viewed the tragedy of war. Because Brady refused to give credit to his photographers for their photographs, many of the more proficient left to pursue other photographic frontiers. Brady had provided the capital, the organization, the political connections, and the impetus, but because he could not compromise his position, his organization was weakened.
Brady’s photographs of the Civil War were not a financial success. The exhibitions were well attended, but few photographs were purchased. Brady was forced to declare bankruptcy. In 1875 the government acquired title to his Civil War negatives for $25,000. The collection is now housed in the National Archives.
Julia Brady died in 1884. The remaining years were sad and depressing ones for Mathew Brady. An exhibition of his work was planned for Carnegie Hall on January 30, 1896. Mathew Brady died January 15, 1896 in New York. He was returned to Washington, D.C. and buried in the Congressional Cemetery. The Washington Evening Star said of his death “News of his passing will be received with sorrow by hundreds and hundreds who knew this gentle photographer, whose name is today a household name all over the United States.”
Mathew Brady’s legacy is commanding. He left the historical portraits of American heroes, but more important, he left the power of photography to record history as it takes place.