By Bill Dobbins
When the Civil War started, photography as we know it was only about 20 years old. It had been in existence only about as long as mass involvement in the Internet is today. Louis Daguerre developed his
And it was the wet plate system that photographer Mathew Brady used to record his images of the Civil War (1861-1865)
The process Brady used had been available for less time than most of us have had access to creating digital images. The practical and technical challenges to making photographs of a war were considerable. The cameras used were large, view cameras. A film holder containing a plate coated with a light-sensitive emulsion is inserted into the back. The photographer removes a dark slide, clicks the shutter and replaces the side.
Using the wet-plate collision process, the photographer had to apply the emulsion to the plate before making the exposure and develop the image before the emulsion dried. So there had to be some kind of darkroom facility available. For a photographer not working in a studio but somewhere on location, this could be some kind of tent or a portable darkroom in a wagon. But given the unwieldy nature of the camera, the need for very long exposures due to slow emulsions and lenses and the need to develop and fix the images, it is obvious it was pretty much impossible for a photographer to shoot action images of a war in progress like we have become accustomed to in more modern times.
Mathew Brady (1822-1896) began as a photographer making Daguerreotypes, studying under inventor Samuel F.B. Morse. He continued making daguerreotypes during the 1840s and 1850s but also ambrotype photography and then using glass plates to produce albumen prints, which became commonly used by photographers in the Civil War.
When the Civil War broke out, Brady conceived of a project to photograph the war on a grand scale and to travel to actual battlefields and get as close to the action – including the horrors of so much death and crippling dismembering injuries – as possible. He obtained permission from Abraham Lincoln to travel to the battle sites. And during the course of his taking photographs he came under direct fire in several battles and was in danger of being captured by the Confederate forces.
Actually, Brady was not out there shooting photos totally on his own. He employed more than 20 other photographers to contribute photos to the project, each of whom needing to make use of a portable darkroom. As time when on he visited battlefields less often but stayed in Washington and acted as a kind of project coordinator. He always felt that deciding which locations should be photographed and when and making sure his photographers were on hand at the right time and were logistically supported were the most important elements in documenting the war – much as a film director is creditor as the “auteur” of his film even though he may not operate the camera, set the lights, dress the sets or perform other tasks delegated to the crew.
Brady’s gradual withdrawal from doing the actual photography was also due in part to the fact that his eyesight was poor and continued to deteriorate over time.
Brady began exhibiting his work as early as 1862 and caused a sensation because photographs like this were totally new to the public and gave them a first-hand look at what conditions on the battlefield were really like and how horrific they could be. America had never been involved in a war like this – and in a sense never has since. It is estimated that 620,000 were killed in the line of duty, some 2% of the entire population. The numbers of crippled and maimed were astronomical. And remember: this was due to Americans fighting with other Americans. A terrible, terrible reality.
Mathew Brady photographs remain a major resource when it comes to understanding what happened in the Civil War and what it looked like. These images are a national treasure. Unfortunately for Brady, he self-financed most of the cost of creating more than 10,000 plates. He received a great deal of attention during the war but, afterwards, the public no longer exhibited much interest in dwelling on such an awful period. He expected the US government to buy his plates but this did not happen. So Brady was forced to sell his studio and go into bankruptcy. He died penniless in 1896.
There are a number of lessons to learn from the career of Mathew Brady. First is that his priceless photos of the Civil War only exist because his personal passion for the project. He didn’t look for sponsors or government subsidy. Extensive photographs of a war in progress was a brand new idea and he was technically and temperamentally equipped to take those photos and arrange for others to shoot images as well. He was later quoted s saying “I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.” Like so many artists, inventors and other who achieved great things he was motivated by an inner urge, by something in his own spirit.
But Brady as capable of seeing beyond his own ego. It was “the project” he devoted himself to, not to his using only images that he created himself. With some 20 people employed in a “work for hire” status, his ambition was to create as complete documentation of the sights and scenes of the Civil War rather than to be jealous of his own reputation as a photographer.
The final and saddest lesson is the degree to which the public and the government failed to honor or support him during the later part of his lifetime. He knew how important his achievement had been but you have to think as he got older, sicker and poorer he began to develop doubts. Then again, surrounded by his fantastic collection of photographs he might have continued to believe that some day, with the passing of time, his contributions would be appreciated and his name and achievements would be honored.
Because human beings are story tellers we like to think of events as having an arc, a beginning and middle and end. Too often we focus on sad endings and let this color our appreciation of the whole story. But in terms of history that is not what ultimately seems to matter. Van Gough died young and tragically but his paintings continue to amaze. Napoleon died in exile but changed the history of the world during his lifetime. So did Alexander the Great. Ghana and Martin Luther King have had a lasting influence on the world long after their lives were ended by assassination.
Mathew Brady’s will, determination, and skill have given us a record of the Civil War that would not otherwise exist. I suspect that if he had realized what a personal and financial price he would pay in his quest to document the Civil War he would probably have gone ahead with the project regardless of consequences.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: