Theater of War

The real story behind Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs.

“Mathew Brady’s Portraits: Images as History, Photography as Art”
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Sept. 26, 1997-Jan. 4, 1998

Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Jan. 24-April 12, 1998

International Center for Photography, New York City
May 1-July 19, 1998

According to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who met Abraham Lincoln in March of 1862, one year into the Civil War, Lincoln looked like a country schoolmaster: He was “about the homeliest man I ever saw.” Lincoln’s hair was “black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb that morning, after the disarrangement of the pillow.”

The man who spruced up the shaggy president for posterity was Mathew Brady, and a brush and comb were the least of his tools of transformation, as a comprehensive exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington makes abundantly clear. Brady’s studio assistants used vises and braces to keep their subjects still, columns and drapes to make them look distinguished, light and shade to give them depth and stature. When Lincoln posed for Brady in 1860, during a campaign swing through New York City, Brady’s staff retouched the negative to reel in Lincoln’s roving left eye, and erased the lines on his face. The shimmering and widely published result, according to Lincoln, “made me President.” A Brady Lincoln is on the penny, and another on the five-dollar bill.

This exhibition, along with the excellent catalog by curator Mary Panzer, is out to correct the impression that Brady captured the look of his times with the new apparatus that couldn’t lie. Brady is often credited with bringing the war home, in the images that appeared in newspapers all across the North. Brady’s name, in fact, has become all but synonymous with Civil War photography. While it is probably true, as Susan Sontag has argued, that Brady’s images of the horrors of the battlefields “did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War,” he did convey to his audience the sheer human cost of the war. He also inspired generations of photographers–especially such 1930s masters of documentation as Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans–with the idea that there was something peculiarly American about the pitiless gaze of the camera. “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets,” wrote a New York Times editorialist at the time, “he has done something very like it.” These were the images that lit a fire in the brain of Stephen Crane when he was writing The Red Badge of Courage 30 years later.

But actually, as Panzer’s catalog makes clear, Brady was put off by corpses. The stunning images of the Antietam dead, lying in ditches where they fell, are the work (published under Brady’s name) of his brilliant assistants Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan. (You can see some of these battlefield photos in Slate’s “The Taste for Taboo.”)

Far from being a documentarian, Brady considered himself an artist, and his images, in the jargon of current art history, were highly “constructed.” When a general failed to show up for a group photograph of Gen. William Sherman and his staff, Brady had him photographed the next day, and spliced his image into the ensemble. When the faces of the Senate committee convened to impeach President Andrew Jackson looked too sour, Brady painted in a reassuringly genteel background. For a few hundred dollars, he was willing to go all the way, and replace the grays of a photograph with painted colors.

Brady worked in close collaboration with painters. Lincoln died in a room barely large enough to hold his bed, but Brady photographed the multitude of mourners one by one in his studio, and the painter Alonzo Chappel assembled them (often in the exact poses Brady had choreographed) in a monumental and wildly popular painting, The Last Hours of Lincoln (1868).

That Brady was a great photographer who did not take photographs was merely the most obvious of the many paradoxes of his career. He was an impresario and a brand name, hiring talented assistants (several of whom went on to become major photographers in their own right) to shoot, color, and otherwise alter first daguerreotypes, and then–Brady was always up on the latest technical innovations–stereographs, ambrotypes, Imperial salted paper prints, and other photographic exotica. During the Civil War, Brady sent teams of assistants into the battlefields. His own whereabouts during much of the war remain unknown. A possible reason for this has come to light: While pursuing Gen. Grant for portraits late in the war, Brady was apparently using his knowledge of troop movements to speculate on Wall Street, sending coded messages through intermediaries in New York. One of Grant’s assistants got wind of the scheme, and asked Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana to tell Grant “how he is being deceived by one to whom he has granted various privileges and favors.” But Grant remained a stalwart supporter of Brady.

The wizard behind these Oz-like wonders remains elusive–we don’t even know what year Mathew Brady was born, though 1823 is the usual guess. His childhood in upstate New York is a blank. Brady had serious eye trouble from his youth on; an oil portrait in the show, by his friend Charles Loring Elliott, shows him wearing thick spectacles. Brady made his way to New York City, and by 1843, five years after Daguerre announced his new invention, he was already active in the slightly disreputable trade of photography, manufacturing the leather and metal cases for holding daguerreotypes. Brady’s first published work was an 1846 collaboration, with the female warden of Sing Sing, on a phrenological study of prison inmates–the sort of analysis of “criminal physiognomy” that later influenced painters like Degas and the poet Baudelaire. Though Brady never acknowledged the project, he remained in close touch with quacks. A detailed phrenological analysis of Brady himself, dating from 1858–the year that Brady moved his base of operations from New York City to Washington, D.C.–is included in the exhibition catalog.

A tireless self-promoter (a friend described him as “felicitously prehensile”), Brady was camera-shy, placing himself on the margins of photographs in which he appeared or, more often, with his back turned. But theatricality is the hallmark of his work. He loved to photograph actors, the more flamboyant the better. He was apparently drawn to women who specialized in “trouser roles”–three are on display in the exhibition, including a particularly intense ambrotype (a cheaper and less luminous form of daguerreotype) of Felicita Vestvali, a lesbian who often appeared as Hamlet. Brady also delighted in Indian costumes: among his photographs are those of a Ute delegation negotiating a treaty in Washington and of the actor Edwin Forrest in warpath regalia as the Indian prince Metamora.

When Brady photographed the leaders of the antebellum years–Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and the rest–he turned them into actors too. They strike heroic, Napoleonic poses, hand to heart, which made these wafflers and compromisers look ridiculous after the debacle of the Civil War. (If you want to see the original of the pose, you can cross the Mall to the National Gallery, where Jacques-Louis David’s 1812 Napoleon in His Study hangs.)

But for Brady himself, war never quite lost its theatricality. Unlike his cold-eyed assistants, he preferred to visit the battlefield after the corpses had been cleared away. There he would stand, his back turned to us like the contemplative artist figure in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and reflect on the glory and folly of mankind. Mathew Brady died in 1896. Elusive till the end, he was scheduled to lecture, two weeks later, on his life and work as a war photographer–with slides and patriotic music–at Carnegie Hall.