On Easter Sunday 1865, the renowned Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady set up his camera on the basement-level back porch of a house in Richmond. Brady was about to score one of the photographic scoops of his time.
Onto the brick walkway strode Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the vanquished rebel Army of Northern Virginia. Perhaps only Brady could have persuaded Lee to pose for a picture at such a time. Only Brady had the moxie to ask.
This moment is detailed in a new biography, Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation, by Robert Wilson, editor of the American Scholar. It is one of the clear sketches of the elusive photo pioneer that Wilson has been able to nail down in a life that, for the historian, remains filled with unknowns. It’s not known exactly when or where Brady was born – around 1823, the author writes, somewhere near Lake George in northern New York. He wrote very few letters that have survived.
Thus, the personal written record of his life is scant, and the truth of some of what survives is questionable or exaggerated.
The book is understandably light on biography. It’s maddening that such a gigantic, intriguing figure left us so thin a trail. The book’s strength becomes its fascinating account of how the business of photography worked in the mid-19th century.
By the outbreak of the Civil War, Brady was already famous. His gallery had taken an early photograph of President Abraham Lincoln – which helped get him elected, Brady claimed – and scores of other notables.
But as the war drew photography out of the studio, the nature of the art changed. But it was still the Brady name, like that of a modern TV news celebrity, that commanded attention.
In the case of Lee, the general detested being photographed, the author writes. Brady was undeterred. It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit, Brady told an interviewer many years later. I thought that to be the time for the historical picture. He took six now-famous photographs of Lee.
After the war, Brady’s fortunes declined. He was plagued by business troubles. In 1894, he was injured by a hit-and-run horse carriage while crossing 14th Street at New York Avenue. The next year, he apparently moved back to New York, where someone else wrote his letters for him. He died, battered by illness and poverty, in a New York hospital in 1896 and was buried beside his wife in Congressional Cemetery. He was around 72.
After Brady died, a friend went to clean out his room. The only thing of value he found was a ring given to Brady by the Prince of Wales 36 years before.