Mathew Brady's Gravesite

Mathew Brady’s Gravesite

On this bike ride I stopped by the final resting place of Matthew Brady.  His gravesite is among those of the many historic and public figures buried in Historic Congressional Cemetery, located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood at 1801 E Street (MAP) in southeast D.C.

Mathew Brady was one of the most celebrated American photographers of the 19th century, and was well known for his portraits, particularly of public figures.  His first portrait studio in New York City was highly publicized, and in it Brady began to photograph as many famous people of his time as he could, which included Daniel Webster, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe.

A few years later he opened a second studio in D.C., where he continued his portraiture of public figures and prominent politicians, such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and 18 of the 19 American Presidents from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley.  The exception was William Henry Harrison, who died in office only a month after his inauguration, and three years before Brady started his photographic collection.  Among his presidential photographs, Brady famously photographed President Abraham Lincoln on several occasions, and it is his portraits of Lincoln that are on the five dollar bill and the Lincoln penny.

As famous as he is for his portrait photography, Brady is even more widely known for innovative use of photography to document the Civil War.  Initially, at the outbreak of the war, Brady’s photography business sold portrait images to transient soldiers.  Brady also marketed to parents, encouraging them to capture images of their soldier sons before going to war and possibly being killed.  He even ran an advertisement in The New York Daily Tribune that read, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”  However, he was soon taken with the idea of documenting the war itself. Eventually it was this photography that earned him the moniker of “The Father of Photojournalism.”

Seeking to create a comprehensive photo-documentation of the war, Brady organized a group of photographers and staff at his own considerable expense to follow the troops as the world’s first embedded field photographers.  Brady even bought photographs and negatives from private photographers in order to make the collection as complete as possible.

Almost as skilled at self-promotion as he was at photography, Brady held an exhibition during the middle of the war in his New York studio entitled “The Dead of Antietam,” in which he graphically displayed the carnage of the war with photographs of the battlefield before the dead had been removed.  A New York Times article in October of 1862 captures the impact of the exhibition, stating, “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 door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Following the war Brady continued to work in D.C., but the Civil War project ruined him financially.  He had spent over $100,000, much of it on credit, with the expectation that the U.S. government would want to buy his photographs when the war ended.  But when the government refused to do so, he was forced to declare bankruptcy and sell his New York City studio.  Unable to even pay the storage bill for his negatives, they were sold at public auction.  Ironically, they were bought by the U.S. War Department for $2,840.  Through lobbying by friends, Brady was eventually granted by Congress an additional payment of $25,000, but it was only a fraction of what he had spent on the project, and he remained financially destitute for the remainder of his life.

In addition to his financial problems, Brady also became depressed over the deterioration of his eyesight, which had begun years earlier.  He also became very lonely after the passing of his wife.  Then in 1895 Brady suffered two broken legs as a result of a traffic accident.  He never fully recovered, and died penniless and alone in the charity ward of Presbyterian Hospital in New York City on January 15, 1896.  Without enough money left to bury him, his funeral, and burial next to his wife at Congressional Cemetery, was financed by the New York 7th Regiment Veteran’s Association.

During my visit to the cemetery, as I took photographs of his grave with my cell phone, I couldn’t help but wonder what Brady would have thought of the current technology used in photography, and how widely accessible and relatively affordable that technology has made photography.  I also wondered what he would have thought of the number of photographs that people take these days. It’s estimated only a few million pictures were taken in the 80 years before the first commercial camera was introduced.  Photography then became more widespread when the Kodak Brownie was released in 1900, four years after Brady’s death.  Brady and his staff took approximately 10,000 photos during the Civil War, an enormous number at that time.  Today, we take more than 380 billion photos a year.  I imagine Brady would be absolutely astounded.

MatthewBrady02     MatthewBrady03     MatthewBrady04

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Comments
  1. Excellent post. Thanks very much.

    Like

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