Capturing Mathew Brady, Photographer Who Shaped Our Vision of the Civil War

September 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Mathew Brady, a 19th century pioneer of American photography, was known for both his portraits of celebrities as well as for his searing images of the Civil War. Jeffrey Brown talks to Robert Wilson, author of a new biography called, "Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation," about how the artist shaped the vision of America.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Finally tonight, one of the pioneers of photography.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was, first, Brady of Broadway, Mathew Brady, one of the best-known portrait photographers of his day, a shaper of images of the likes of Abraham Lincoln and then of a searing period in American history, the Civil War.

Brady’s own story is told now in a new biography, “Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation.”

Author Robert Wilson is editor of “The American Scholar.” And he joins me now.

And welcome to you.

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ROBERT WILSON, “Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation”: Thank you. Great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is an interesting case where the work is so famous, but it turns out there’s huge gaps in what we know about the man and many myths about the work.

ROBERT WILSON: Absolutely.

Brady — it’s interesting, because Brady was so committed to history and to recording history through his photographs, and yet he left very little trace of himself. And he knew so many of the important people and events of this time, and yet he had this sort of Zelig-like existence, where he was always off to the side.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is clear that he’s a photographer, we know, but I think what you’re painting a portrait of someone — we’d call him today an entrepreneur, right?

ROBERT WILSON: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: A businessman and, as you say, a master of promotion.

ROBERT WILSON: Absolutely.

One of the ways in which I was able to find out a lot more about Brady than I expected to was following the — following the advertisements. And he would — like his neighbor across the street in Broadway when he was in New York, P.T. Barnum, he was a great master of using advertising in newspapers and other publications.

And so I was able to find out a lot about him that way as well. But early on, one of the thing he did to establish himself was really devote himself to taking images of the famous. And so there was a lot of reflected glory, I think, on him.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, you give him credit for — you say he helped create this whole idea of celebrity in America.

ROBERT WILSON: Absolutely.

He — I think partly hand in hand with Barnum, who must have been some sort of inspiration to him, he took early pictures of Jenny Lind, who, when she first came to America on an incredibly famous and well-received tour of America, Brady was there taking pictures of her.

When the crown prince of England came on another tour, about which there were 200 articles in The New York Times, as he came through this country and to Canada, Brady’s studio was one of the first places that Albert came to have this photograph made.

And so he — he became associated with celebrity himself, and people wanted to come and be photographed by him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one of those celebrities, the most famous at all, is Abraham Lincoln.

ROBERT WILSON: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: A very famous portrait taken at the — it’s 1860 at the Cooper Union.

And then there’s this famous quote: “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.”

ROBERT WILSON: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: We don’t know if Lincoln him said that or Brady quoted Lincoln saying that.

ROBERT WILSON: No, that’s — the sole source for that quote is Brady himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: The master of promotion.

ROBERT WILSON: So take it as you will.


ROBERT WILSON: Yes. Lincoln did come to Brady’s studio on Broadway, though, on the day of the Cooper Union speech.

And he’d been traveling by train from Springfield to come and give the talk. And he pulled out of his valise a new suit that was just incredibly wrinkled. And there’s some thought that part of what made the photograph so important was that it humanized Lincoln and made him seem more kind of like a normal person.

And that picture was very influential, was widely reproduced, and, yes, whether it made him president or not, I don’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the — of course, what he’s most famous for, the Civil War photos.

The question, the controversy has always been how much of the work he took and how much of it he did himself, how much he took credit for the work of others. To what degree does it matter? Where did you come out on that?

ROBERT WILSON: Well, Brady, you know, as we said, he was a businessman.

He — his studio employed a number of different people doing a number of different things, including people who actually took the photographs themselves. So Brady had a bigger role. And his name became the brand for what was done in his studio and what his people did.

It’s a little bit hard to understand in the context of a photographer, an artist, where we think of one person being responsible for the work. But I think in the context of a businessman or a business, you think of — Henry Ford didn’t make the cars, and yet the Fords — the cars are all called Fords.

So all these photographs that were taken under Brady’s aegis are photos by Brady.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so how do you define his impact or influence on the very image we have of that, of the Civil War?

ROBERT WILSON: Well, I think it’s just — it’s central, it’s crucial.

Brady, beyond the photographs that he took or commissioned to be taken, he was a great collector of photographs and to some extent a great stealer of photographs of others or copier of photographs of others. This was wildly done, but Brady did it with a single-mindedness.

And so there are just thousands and thousands, maybe as many as 10,000 images from those years that we have because of Brady and his enthusiasm for pulling a collection together and preserving it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did you come to summarize or feel about his contribution to the history of photography itself, the art of it, as well as what we’re talking about, the business of it?


Garry Wills read my book early on and gave — wrote something about it, said, Brady didn’t just make photographs. He made photography. And I think in the early years, his influence was so widespread. I mean, he not only — so many of the people who became great photographers during the Civil War worked with Brady first, so he was a mentor to them.

He was interested in the development of the medium. He was very interested in the idea of photography as art and tried to uphold sort of artistic standards with what he did. So, you know, he just touched so many aspects of photography in its first decades that I think he was — there again, he was crucial.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’re going to continue this conversation online, where I want to ask you about some of the other famous portraits, including one of Robert E. Lee right after the war.

For now, the book is “Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation.”

And, Robert Wilson, thanks so much.

ROBERT WILSON: Thank you very much.