July 22, 1861
Brady soon acquired a reputation as one of America's greatest photographers -- producer of portraits of the famous. In 1856, he opened a studio in Washington, D.C., the better to photograph the nation's leaders and foreign dignitaries. As he himself said, "From the first, I regarded myself as under obligation to my country to preserve the faces of its historic men and mothers." He became one of the first photographers to use photography to chronicle national history.
At the peak of his success as a portrait photographer, Brady turned his attention to the Civil War. Planning to document the war on a grand scale, he organized a corps of photographers to follow the troops in the field. Friends tried to discourage him, citing battlefield dangers and financial risks, but Brady persisted. He later said, "I had to go. A spirit in my feet said 'Go,' and I went."
Mathew Brady did not actually shoot many of the Civil War photographs attributed to him. More of a project manager, he spent most of his time supervising his corps of traveling photographers, preserving their negatives and buying others from private photographers freshly returned from the battlefield, so that his collection would be as comprehensive as possible. When photographs from his collection were published, whether printed by Brady or adapted as engravings in publications, they were credited "Photograph by Brady," although they were actually the work of many people.
In 1862, Brady shocked America by displaying his photographs of battlefield corpses from Antietam, posting a sign on the door of his New York gallery that read, "The Dead of Antietam." This exhibition marked the first time most people witnessed the carnage of war. The New York Times said that Brady had brought "home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war."
After the Civil War, Brady found that war-weary Americans were no longer interested in purchasing photographs of the recent bloody conflict. Having risked his fortune on his Civil War enterprise, Brady lost the gamble and fell into bankruptcy. His negatives were neglected until 1875, when Congress purchased the entire archive for $25,000. Brady's debts swallowed the entire sum. He died in 1896, penniless and unappreciated. In his final years, Brady said, "No one will ever know what I went through to secure those negatives. The world can never appreciate it. It changed the whole course of my life."
Despite his financial failure, Mathew Brady had a great and lasting effect on the art of photography. His war scenes demonstrated that photographs could be more than posed portraits, and his efforts represent the first instance of the comprehensive photo-documentation of a war.