Photographer. Known for portraits of illustrious Americans, he also masterminded creation of an extensive visual record of the Civil War, the first military conflict to be comprehensively photographed. An artist, an entrepreneur, and something of a self-promoting showman, he proved instrumental in consolidating photography's role in modern society. Among the earliest photographers to understand and exploit the power of images, he grasped the new medium's potential within a culture that prized information, entertainment, and spectacle. In pursuit of his vision, he eagerly adopted, and often improved, new photographic technologies as they became available. Eventually he served his ambitions by hiring others to do much of the actual photographing in the studio and, more importantly, on the battlefield. Nevertheless, during the Civil War he choreographed their activities and contextualized their images, thus accruing to the Brady name an authenticating power in understandings of the conflict. Born in Warren County, in upstate New York near Lake George, not even he knew the meaning of the middle initial his parents gave him. After working for a short time in Albany with William Page, in 1841 he accompanied the painter to New York. There Brady learned the new daguerreotype process from Samuel F. B. Morse. In 1844 he opened his first studio, the Daguerrean Miniature Gallery, where he made portraits but also displayed likenesses of well-known people. A great success, Brady's establishment drew luminaries from nearly every field, including politics, entertainment, literature, and art, as well as ordinary clients who could relish an association with notables. Following his shrewd instinct for celebrity, in 1850 he published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, with twenty-four lithographic reproductions of his daguerreotypes picturing several U.S. presidents, John James Audubon, Henry Clay, James Fenimore Cooper, Dolley Madison, and others. Although the volume was widely admired, modest sales quashed Brady's hopes for a series. During the summer of 1851 Brady departed for ten months abroad. He toured the Continent and visited London, where a gold medal for general excellence in the 1851 Crystal Palace international exhibition certified his international prestige.
Although by this time the most famous photographer in the United States, he had been troubled for some time by vision problems. Perhaps because of this deficiency, he had begun to employ assistants to operate the camera. However, Brady retained creative control by continuing to pose, light, and supervise the sittings. He first photographed Abraham Lincoln in February 1860, just before the presidential aspirant delivered his momentous Cooper Union address in New York. The resulting portrait helped to elect Lincoln and established a fruitful relationship that resulted in a number of subsequent likenesses from the Brady studio. By the late 1850s the newer glass-plate technology had supplanted daguerreotypes in Brady's practice. An assistant, Alexander Gardner, who had arrived highly skilled in the technique from Britain in 1856, facilitated the transition. Reviving a plan that had failed about ten years earlier, in 1858 Brady established a presence in the nation's capital, with Gardner in charge. Extending his zeal to record the history of his time by photographing the country's most important figures, Brady assumed responsibility for documenting the Civil War. He took some early battlefield pictures but for the most part oversaw the operation from his studio. Almost presaging the role of film director, he conceived the plans, directed the working photographers, and maintained editorial control of the undertaking. Among field agents for this unprecedented undertaking, Gardner, George Barnard, and Timothy O'Sullivan particularly stand out, although all three left Brady's employ after the first year or two of the war. However, as they continued to photograph the conflict on their own, they contributed to a documentary archive that Brady had done much to conceive. Because photography remained a slow and cumbersome process in the 1860s and because sharply focused clarity appealed to contemporary taste, nearly all Civil War photographs present static compositions. In place of action, we witness camp life, battle preparations, carnage, and ruinous desolation. Instead of heroes, we can usually discern only anonymous fighters. Enduring drudgery or dead on the field, they seem dispensable components of this first mechanized, modern war. Although evidence suggests that Civil War photographers sometimes manipulated subjects in order to heighten the emotional power of their images, the seeming objectivity of the photographic process gave these pictures the aura of unbiased reports. In the aggregate, the mission Brady defined for photography inadvertently demystified military glory and the romance of battle. Assuming there would be a huge market for the images when the conflict ended, he spared little expense in pursuing his epic project. In fact, the public apparently wanted to forget the war once it was over, and Brady went bankrupt within a few years. His appeals to the federal government to preserve for the nation his entire collection of portraits and Civil War images went unheeded. Rather, in 1874 the government purchased his negatives at auction when he could no longer pay for storage. The following year, however, Congress compensated him for title to several thousand images, today in the National Archives. Early neglect of Brady's Civil War achievement has long since been redeemed by acclaim for both the historical value of the images generally and the expressive power of the best. The federal government's payment relieved Brady's debts, but he never regained his financial footing nor his artistic stature. Instead, his postwar years reveal a sad story of depression, alcoholism, illness, and creative stasis. Brady died in lonely obscurity in New York, but he was honored with burial in Arlington National Cemetery.