Whenever the term “war photographer” is mentioned, it’s impossible not to think of the indelible images of World War Two, the Spanish Civil War and the war in Vietnam. But if you want to find the godfather of the genre, you have to go back to the 19th century and the American Civil War, when Mathew Brady pioneered not just war photography, but photojournalism itself.
Brady and his team of photo apprentices traveled in the wake of, and sometimes were embedded with armies. They captured the casualties and destruction of the bloodiest war in American history with a clinical, detached eye. Their photos became the greatest documentation of the war and can be seen where any mention of the war has accompanying photos – most famously in Ken Burns’ landmark documentary “The Civil War.”
Brady himself studied under Samuel Morse, the pioneer of the daguerreotype method in the United States. In 1844 he opened his own studio on Broadway in New York, and started doing mostly portrait work, the most significant of these being a “collection” of presidential portraits beginning with Andrew Jackson in the 1830s and ending with William McKinley in 1897. One of Brady’s portraits of Abraham Lincoln was even used on the five dollar bill and the Lincoln penny.
The Daguerrotype Process
Brady photographed using the daguerreotype process, which had been the primary method of image-making since photography was invented. Producing a daguerrotype is a long process requiring hard work and precision by the photographer, not to mention requiring plenty of patience from the subject.
The process began with the photographer (or the period term daguerrotypist) polishing a sheet of silver-plated copper with four different chemicals until it achieved a mirror finish, then treating it with nitric acid until the surface was light-sensitive. Then, the silver surface would be exposed to halogen fumes in darkness, which produced a surface of silver iodide and made the plate ready for exposure.
The plate would then be carried to the portrait area in a light-tight holder and inserted into the camera. A dark slide would then be removed from the camera and the exposure would begin when the photographer removed the lens cap. Depending on how the photographer sensitised the plate and the amount of available light, exposure times could range from seconds to minutes. (Contrary to the popular opinion that people didn’t smile in old photographs to avoid showing bad teeth, in reality, smiling for a long exposure would create motion blur and ruin the photograph.)
After the lens cap was reattached, the dark slide was reinserted and the film holder removed from the camera. To develop the image, the plate would be exposed to the fumes of heated mercury for several minutes. After development, the sensitivity of the plate was stopped by removing the silver halide with a solution of sodium thisulfate. Later, gold toning, or gilding, would be used to warm up starkly gray images. The extremely delicate plate would then be rinsed, dried and placed under glass for protection.
Daguerrotype images are either positive or negative depending on the direction from which it is viewed, ambient lighting, and the type of background used. Dark areas of the image are pure silver with lighter areas having an extremely fine light-scattering texture.
By the time of the Civil War, exposure times had been cut down by the development of faster lenses, and the creation of additional (and very different) processes such as ambrotyping and tintyping.
Brady and the Civil War
The Civil War would be the biggest boon for Brady’s career, and his shrewd self-promotion quickly paid off. He advertised in New York newspapers hoping to attract soldiers willing to pay to have their likeness sent home to their families as they marched to war. One advertisement even went so far as to say “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”
For hundreds of these soldiers, too late was enough of a motivator to pay Brady to make them a carte de visite, the most popular form of keepsake photography. Made with a thin paper paper photograph mounted on a thicker paper card, they were small enough to fit into envelopes. They were also cost effective for the photographer as he could make up to eight negatives on a single plate. In the decade before the Civil War, the carte de visite had taken the world by storm and “cardomania” had seen people from all walks of life – from Queen Victoria to slaves with whipping scars on their back – captured on a card.
At the same time that Brady was riding the carte de visite wave, he did two things that would ensure his reputation as the greatest photographer of the 19th century; he created a mobile studio and darkroom for wet plate photography, and began hiring photographer apprentices. Together, these decisions would allow Brady to take his cameras to the war, rather that waiting for it to come to his studio. He equipped each of his photographers with their own mobile studio and sent them out to photograph a war that spanned more than 2,000 miles.
Brady’s shrewd enterprising has meant that today he often receives credit for the work of those who worked for him. In fact, these photographers, including Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan and George Barnard, took the majority of the Brady Civil War images, many of which continue to define that war in the public consciousness.
“The Dead of Antietam”, Sharpsburg, Md., 1862
With more than 23,000 casualties, the Battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest single day in American history. After the battle, Brady sent photographer Alexander Gardner to photograph the battlefield. His photos were filled with dead soldiers, bringing the true horrors of war to millions of newspaper readers across the country.
This photo shows Confederate dead near a damaged caisson (which held cannon ammunition) in front of the Dunker Church, the scene of some of the battle’s fiercest fighting. There’s an emotional detachment to the photo that makes it so compelling – it seems like a traditional landscape photo that happens to have dead bodies in it.
This image, along with the other images that Gardner made at Antietam, are matter-of-fact documentations of the battle, made without comment or agenda. They were the perfect tools with which to strip away the last varnish of sentimentality and romanticism anyone still had about war, both in the North and the South.
Upon publishing the photos, one newspaper editor would say, “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards… he has done something very like it.”
Three Confederate Prisoners near Gettysburg, July 1863
As was shown in the Antietam work, Brady and his photographers had a rule that the dead shown in their photographs were almost exclusively Confederate. This meant that while the people at home in the North were seeing the carnage of war, it wasn’t their boys in the images. But the most indelible image of Confederate soldiers wasn’t of the dead, but the captured. The three Confederates in this image were captured just before the battle of Gettysburg and were photographed before being sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
Each of the three men reacts to being photographed differently. The soldier on the left ignores the photographer altogether, while the soldier on the right makes an effort to pose himself as he might in a studio. The middle soldier combines the approach of the others, clearly posing but acting aloof to the fact that he’s being photographed. Together, they exude three characteristics that would define the entire South for the next hundred years; pride, defiance, and defeat.
Company E, 22nd New York Regiment, near Harpers Ferry
When Union soldiers were captured by Brady’s photographers, they usually appears as those in this image – in groups resting in camp. These New York soldiers are camped near Harpers Ferry, then in Virginia and now in West Virginia. The small town at the convergence of three states changed hands more than eight times during the war and was the scene of John Brown’s attempted slave rebellion that helped lead the nation to war.
This particular photo is one of my personal favorites. For four years I worked at Harpers Ferry as a park ranger. My job as an interpreter was to tell the many stories of Harpers Ferry to visitors. We even wore period clothing to make the park a more immersive environment for visitors. While I didn’t sit in the same location as these soldiers, I did wear their clothing and will forever remember the feeling of true southern humidity while wearing wool pants and a wool jacket on a July afternoon.
The National Archives have Brady himself taking this photo, and during the four years of the war he and his photographers would take group portraits of thousands of Union soldiers.
Portraits of U.S. Grant (1864) and Robert E. Lee (1865)
No two generals defined the war as iconically as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. And no two men were more different from one another. Lee was the son of Virginia royalty who made honor such a core of his life that peers at West Point nicknamed him the Marble Man. He found glory in the Mexican War and was considered America’s finest soldier before the war.
Grant was also a hero in Mexico but a failure in everything else except marriage and fatherhood. But he found success again in the army, winning battle after battle in the west as Lee did in the east. It would be the aristocrat Lee that surrendered to the one-time dirt farmer Grant. Both would be presidents after the war – one of a small Virginia college and the other of the United States.
The portraits of both, made by Brady or his associates, capture the essence of each man. Grant poses in the field, hat askew and right arm against a tree. It’s hard to imagine this photo being taken during his first campaign against Lee, a campaign in which Lee beat him so badly that he wept in his tent on the first evening. Grant betrays none of that, showing only the determined stubbornness that would win the war.
In Lee’s portrait, he looks unflappable, distinguished and proud. But the image was taken after he surrendered his army to Grant. Facing defeat, his generals begged him to not give up and instead wage guerrilla warfare. He refused, opting for an end to the war and an embrace of reconstruction. Even the chairs in each are a reflection of the man next to them; Grant’s a simple wooden field chair, Lee’s a more distinguished upholstered type.
Ruins in Charleston, South Carolina, 1865
In the third year of the war, Northern generals began to embrace total war – the idea that war would only be won once the civilian population was made to feel its horrors. After capturing Atlanta, William Tecumseh Sherman would lead his army on a march to the Atlantic, destroying military and civilian infrastructure ranging from railroads to plantation homes. Sherman himself said that only one fifth of the destruction actually benefitted his army. Cities on the coast saw what was in store and frequently surrendered to avoid destruction.
No such luck would be enjoyed by Charleston, South Carolina. The city that served as the cradle of secession and saw the first shots of the war fired in its harbor had been under siege for more than one year when it finally surrendered to Union troops in February 1865. Photographers dispatched to the city by Brady found a wasteland of destruction, with formerly beautiful antebellum buildings lying in rubble. This image perfectly captures not just Charleston, but the entire South in 1865. It would be only two more months before the final surrender and the war’s end.
The entire meaning of the war was captured in this one image. Three black children leaning on the pillar of a destroyed building, the pocked and beaten pillars symbolizing the ruined social order that had enslaved these children and millions of others. The rubble of Charleston shows the cities past and present, while the faceless boys serve as a symbol of the future.
Brady after the Civil War
While war brought fame and fortune to Mathew Brady, it would elude him afterwards. He had spent more than $100,000 to create 10,000 images of the war. But once the war ended, no one had much appetite for his images anymore. When the government he hoped would buy the plates declined, he was forced to sell his studio and declare bankruptcy.
Suffering from depression and loss of eyesight, he died as a result of a streetcar accident in New York. The man who photographed eighteen United States presidents and the leading men of both sides of the Civil War died penniless in a charity hospital in 1896.
In an even sadder indictment, he was so desperate for money after the war that he resorted to selling his glass plate negatives for use in greenhouses. As a result, thousands of important images of America’s bloodiest war were used as window panes, their subjects slowly burned away by the sun.