Battlefield Photos Made Mathew Brady Famous–and Bankrupt

Mathew Brady was the most famous photographer of the Civil War.

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Displayed prominently in the sitting room of Abraham Lincoln's home in Illinois is a wooden, two-lens contraption called a stereoscope-a device for viewing 3-D images that was the Victorian-era equivalent of HDTV. It was consumer demand for new images to view through this device that drove Mathew Brady to the battlefields of the Civil War.

Brady is typically remembered as one of the nation's first photojournalists, a visual historian whose work illustrates almost every serious book on the bloody conflict. But in reality, he was more like a modern movie producer. Brady intended to build a business out of selling images that fed Americans' obsession with the war surrounding them, a potential market that either didn't develop or was too brief to bring him lasting financial success. For that and other little-understood reasons, the nation's most prominent photographer before and during the war faded soon afterward, dying a broken and penniless man.

Hobbyists. As would anyone in the entertainment business, Brady understood celebrity. His New York city studio catered to the rich and famous, generating enough buzz that princes and presidents wouldn't think of visiting the city without stopping by. "It became sort of a tourist attraction, and he became as famous as his subjects," says Mary Panzer, author of Mathew Brady and the Image of History.

Born in upstate New York, Brady moved to the city and earned a living making custom jewelry boxes. This was at the start of the 1840s, just as early photography was making its way across the Atlantic from its invention in France. Hobbyists brought their pictures to Brady, whose leather and metal cases also held painted miniatures and, in some cases, photos. American Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, helped introduce New Yorkers to photography and supplemented his earnings by teaching the craft. Morse may have taught the technique to Brady.

Brady located his photography studio near the city's finest homes and hotels, and by 1845 he had established it as a public gallery, what Panzer terms a "modern Hall of Fame." Friend to both newspaperman Horace Greeley and showman P. T. Barnum, Brady's aspirations were seemingly pulled in both directions.

He opened a second studio in Washington, D.C., in the late 1850s, drawn to the growing prominence of politicians engaged in the prewar crisis. When fighting erupted, he rode behind Union forces to the first major battle at Bull Run, as did much of civilian Washington. Brady soon organized teams of photographers to document the events and feed the public's interest in scenes from the front. Brady personally continued his specialty in portraits of the historically important, but his studio also produced grisly battlefield shots. The majority of those war pictures were meant to be seen through stereoscopes. "That means they were aimed right at the mass market," says Bob Zeller, author of The Blue and Gray in Black and White.

And a sensation did erupt when Brady displayed photos of slaughtered soldiers at his New York gallery in 1862, with shocked citizens pressing their noses to his windows. But Brady overestimated the war's commercial reach. "It just wasn't something people were going to buy to hang in their house," says Carol Johnson, a photo curator at the Library of Congress, which holds much of Brady's work. Even the government was a tough customer, paying only $25,000 a full decade after the war; Brady estimated he spent $100,000 collecting the photos.

Brady struggled to keep his business going after the Civil War ended, but mounting debts finally caught up with him during a national recession in 1873, causing him to file for bankruptcy. Brady had actually been on shaky ground financially since an earlier recession in 1857, says Keith Davis, author of the upcoming book The Origins of American Photography. Part of Brady's problem was that he resisted changing with the times. In targeting the deep pockets of the elite, he had developed the "imperial" print—a large portrait that sometimes cost $500, an astonishing price for the time. But just before the war, small-format prints had started selling to much wider audiences. "It was the bread-and-butter market," Davis says. Brady was slow to accept this, unlike his former assistant, Alexander Gardner, who proved a shrewd businessman.