Mathew B. Brady

Mathew B. Brady



Reports of Mathew Brady’s personal history are sparse. There is no record of his birth or his parentage. He gave his birthplace as Warren County, New York, of Irish parents in the year 1822. That is all that is known; there are no records of his family members or his education. He married Julia Handy in 1849-1850, but there is no record of their marriage so the year may be questioned. Brady had no children. There is some speculation about his ability to write, as he left no records, journals, or letters. It is unusual for a man who created such a rich collection of photographic history to have a past so obscure.


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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.