Portraits of a Nation
By Robert Wilson. Bloomsbury. 288 pp. $28
If you were one of Washington’s elite in the late 1850s, sooner or later you would have found yourself at 350 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., climbing a flight of wooden stairs to a skylighted room, outside of whose windows hung an enormous painted sign for all to see: “Brady’s National Photographic Art Gallery.”
Frock-coated photographer’s assistants would have escorted you through the gallery itself—a long, comfortable room lined with photographs of the famous, the wealthy, and the merely congressional. Two more flights of stairs would have taken you to a dressing room with a marble washstand and, next to it, under a skylight, the sitting room, where a carved oak chair and a few props awaited you—books, a clock (which always read 11:52), a toga for the senatorially inclined, and a metal clamp to hold your head steady in front of the big, black-draped camera. Usually an assistant operated the camera, but if you were lucky, Mathew Brady, a small, bushy-haired Irishman with a pointed beard and a big nose, might step into the room at the last moment and arrange your pose.
Robert Wilson, the author of a new biography of Brady, is editor of The American Scholar and a prolific essayist on American topics. In his excellent 2006 life of the American explorer Clarence King, Wilson took on the challenge of dealing with a dramatic, oversized, highly contradictory personality—on the one hand, a fearless conqueror of the wild and rugged Sierra Nevada, on the other, a witty sophisticate who felt perfectly at home among Henry Adams’s exquisite porcelains and watercolors, a beloved member of that most exclusive of 19th-century clubs, “The Five of Hearts.” To the delight of any biographer, King left a copious record of his exciting life—books, letters, numerous geological reports, memoirs by his many friends.
By contrast, Wilson’s new subject, Mathew Brady (always spelled that way), lived mostly in hotels, never traveled west of Virginia, and left no more than a handful of letters and newspaper interviews. But he was without question the most important figure in early American photography, and if the written record is scant, and if his personality appears to have been no more than affable, smiling, a little bland, the images he gave the nation before and during the Civil War are the work of a great and passionate artist.
He was born around 1823 near Lake George, New York, the son of an Irish immigrant. From childhood, he suffered very poor eyesight, an irony the future “sun drawer” recognized when he told a friend that, even as a boy, “I felt a craving for light.” At 16 or 17 he moved to New York City and, like a real-life Horatio Alger, quickly became acquainted with three classic American visionary hustlers—the artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, the showman P.T. Barnum, and the merchant prince A. T. Stewart, whose “Marble Palace” on Broadway was America’s first department store. Soon enough, with his friends’ methods of self-promotion well in mind, Brady entered the new and wildly popular business of making and selling daguerreotypes. Commercial photography came in existence roughly at the same time that he arrived in the city, but when he opened his studio a few years later, in 1844, there were already numerous established studios catering to a public in love with the idea of cheap, faithful portraits of themselves—“sun drawings,” “sun pictures,” “heliographs,” as the earliest names for photography had it.Photography, Wilson shrewdly observes, was “among the first examples (along with the telegraph and the railway) of a phenomenon that has become almost commonplace in our time—an advance in technology that transforms rapidly from a state of inconceivable mystery . . . to something that everyone could and must have access to.”
For two decades, Brady enjoyed unmatched success as a photographer of the successful and the talked about. (With no evident trace of despair, Wilson notes that Brady “helped invent the modern idea of celebrity.”) He had a genius not only for improving the techniques of photography, but also for using light and contrast—there were a clarity and an authenticity to his portraits, people agreed, that no one else could achieve. Much of what we remember—what we see—of antebellum America comes from his unforgettable photographs of such notables as Edgar Allan Poe, General Winfield Scott, and the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind. His beautiful and delicate photograph of the young Henry James with his father is worth volumes of scholarship.
This was no haphazard achievement. Brady’s ambition, as he himself declared, was “to form a gallery which shall eventually contain life-like portraits of every distinguished American now living.” But as Wilson reminds us, the word “photography” means “writing with light.” Brady’s ambition to form a national gallery evolved into something grander. Toward the end of his life, Walt Whitman recalled that he and Brady had “had many a talk together: the point was how much better it would often be, rather than having a lot of contradictory records by witnesses and historians—say of Caesar, Socrates, Epictetus, others—if we could have three or four or half a dozen portraits . . . that would be history—the best history—a history from which there would be no appeal.”
When the war came, the historian seized his chance. Wilson traces in fascinating detail Brady’s enterprise of making a photographic record, from which there indeed would be no appeal, of the Homeric struggle to restore the Union. He is especially good on Brady’s close relationship with Abraham Lincoln—in all, Brady and his assistants gave us at least a dozen photographs of the president—and on his business rivalry with Alexander Gardner, his onetime assistant and partner. These two were hardly the only photographers of the war—hundreds of camera wagons and camera operators followed the Union armies wherever they went. (For a variety of reasons, photographers who attached themselves to the forces of the Confederacy took far fewer pictures.) The operators almost never attempted to photograph actual combat—their cameras required too long an exposure time—but their portraits of camp life and celebrated generals were on display all over the North.
Then, at Antietam in 1862 and Gettysburg the following year, photographic journalism took a decisive step. Alongside bucolic images of men gathered around a cooking fire or stacking muskets, now came shocking images of gray corpses left unburied on the field, of soldiers bloody and torn, white bones and skulls. Gardner showed a particular affinity for such photographs—at Gettysburg, he actually moved a Confederate corpse to a more dramatic position and repositioned the dead soldier’s rifle beside him—but Brady excelled in the kind of portraits he had mastered before the war: faces and settings that revealed, as nothing else could, the essentials of a personality. As Wilson notes, he seems simply to have moved his portrait studio outdoors. In one great photograph, Ulysses Grant leans against a tree shortly after the last terrible, almost suicidal assault at Cold Harbor in 1864, an assault that Grant would confess in his Memoirs he had always regretted ordering. Yet even at such a moment, no one can miss the placid, mysterious, indomitable confidence in Grant’s expression, a deep inner character exposed by the artist to light.
Wilson analyzes a number of such photographs—he is especially good on Brady’s sly practice of including himself, Hitchcock-like, in some of his wartime pictures. In perhaps the best of these, taken after the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, the photographer arranged the Union general Robert Potter and members of his staff according to height in front of their tents. The men, wearing hats, look at their bareheaded general, who stares grimly ahead at the camera. Above them, the silvery Virginia pines stretch to the sky. And to the right of the frame stands a well-dressed civilian, hand on hip, leg casually cocked. It is, as Wilson tells us, the author of the image: “Brady has posed himself as what he was, not the subject of the photograph but its presiding intelligence.”
Brady’s life after the war makes for sad reading. Childless, a widower, he began a slow descent into poverty.Late in life he would claim that the ruinous expense of photographing the war had put him on the road to bankruptcy. Wilson makes it clear, however, that Brady’s own prodigality, a lifelong trait, was the real cause of his declining fortunes. For several more decades, he held on to his studio in Washington. But business fell away, and his efforts to sell his great collection of Civil War negatives came to little. He died in poverty in New York at the age of 72, without enough money for a headstone.
There have been other biographies of Brady and several fine discussions of his art—Mary Panzer’s Mathew Brady and the Image of History (1997), for example. But Wilson’s book is notable for its thorough, up-to-date narrative. And his responses to Brady’s work are criticism of a high order. In a beautiful passage about the Gettysburg photographs, he ponders a series of pictures of Brady studying the landscape where General John Reynolds had died—“the photos,” Wilson says, “introduce in an explicit way a human consciousness of the violence that had been played out in these now-serene fields.”
To the argument that such images are no more than a chemical recording of lights and darks, he replies that Brady in fact created what might be called “first-person photography.” The drama and intensity of his works make plain that “a photograph is not just the doings of a sunbeam, an objective rendering of a scene, but a view created, in effect, by an individual consciousness. . . . They steal photography from the sun.”