The first time I ever paid serious attention to historical photographs was in an antique shop in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, in the early 1970s. At the time I was a new employee of the Penn State Libraries and rented rooms in the attic story of a Boalsburg home. The antique shop was heavily focused on what I now realize were high-end Civil War collectibles, which I neither collected nor could afford. There was, however, laid out on a counter an assortment of photo images from the Civil War era, both soldiers and civilians alike. These immediately hit a chord with me and I began a small collection, mainly focusing on the non-military images which were comparatively inexpensive. Over the years I added to my collection accumulated a lot of books on the history of photography, including several covering Mathew Brady and his career photographing luminaries of American history and especially soldiers and events of the Civil War. In the fall of 1997, I attended an impressive exhibition, Mathew Brady Portraits, Images as History, Photography as Art at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC. I must admit, with this background, when I was asked to read and comment on Robert Wilson, new book I feared the book would add little to what I already knew about Brady. Happily, I was completely wrong.
In the introduction Wilson points out that despite his skill in promoting himself and his work, “Brady is someone we cannot know in whole.” He did not keep a journal, detailed business records, or write or dictate memoirs and “we know almost nothing of his domestic life.” Wilson describes how “Brady was in and out of public view his whole working life and was often mentioned in the press,” and states the “hidden-in-sight aspect of Brady’s story has contributed to a number of myths and misinterpretations.”
In my opinion, in Mathew Brady: Portraits Of A Nation, Wilson succeeds in tracing the amazing arc of Brady’s career, making a strong case for him being “the single most important person in nineteenth century American photography.” His commentary on previous interpretations of Brady and commentary of the photographs themselves is fresh and spot on. Persons reading this book not familiar with the history of photography in nineteenth century America will find a fascinating story of how the new medium was accepted, embraced, and how it rapidly evolved and became a chief means of recording illustrious people and events. They should be impressed with Brady’s accomplishments as an artist, entrepreneur and preserver of history. And for those like myself who thought they already knew all there was to know about they will find their interest revived and stimulated.
I would have loved to have been present in Brady’s gallery as he greeted the famous of the day, and led them upstairs to his skylight studio. I’m a little less sure I would have enjoyed following him or his camera operators into the scenes of battle. Fortunately, Brady succeeded in his major enterprise of recording the great figures and events of his day and we can at least enter his world through his photography.
If you enjoy this book, you may also enjoy Mary Panzer’s well illustrated Mathew Brady And The Image Of History. A paperback edition of this work can be bought online for less than $20. Brady himself would be delighted to learn that thousands of Civil War images can be viewed online, most notably at the Library of Congress website. Enjoy.
The illustration for this review is a Carte de visite (cdv)* portrait of Union General John Sedgwick. Sedgwick was hit by three bullets at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, in the leg, wrist, and shoulder. As evidenced by the bandaged hand, General Sedgwick sat for this portrait while still recovering from his wounds. On May 9, 1864, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Sedgwick was shot below the left eye and killed by a Confederate sharpshooter moments after scolding his men for ducking enemy fire. He was the highest ranking Union officer killed in the Civil War. The imprint on the back of the cdv reads, “Published by E & H T Anthony, 501 Broadway, New York, From Photographic Negative in Brady’s National Portrait Gallery.”
*A carte de visite is a small paper photograph glued to a 2 1/2 by 4 inch card. A glass negative was exposed in the camera and, after development, could be used to create an unlimited number of paper images. First introduced and made popular in France in the 1850s, cdvs were produced by the thousands in the United States. Special albums were designed and would hold the studio portraits of family and friends as well as readily available portraits of the famous people of the day. Prior to the advent of the glass negative, the previous forms of photography, daguerreotype and ambrotype, could be reproduced only by taking single copy photos of an image. Greg Ramsey
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