THE MAN WHO MADE MEDIA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MANY PURISTS WHO WOULD ARGUE that Matthew Brady (1822-1896), the man that transformed photography from a tinkerer’s hobby into the world’s first mass medium, was not, strictly speaking, a photographer himself. This is a little like saying Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, was not a musician. To be clear, the nearly blind entrepreneur who first used the fledgling art of picture-making to mold public opinion and promote the archival value of images for posterity often attached his name, or his studio’s, to views actually taken by his assistants. Even at that, the modern history of photography as we know it is impossible without him.
Brady, the closest thing there can be to a visual “biographer” for Abraham Lincoln, was certainly not the first to make portraits of famous people, but he was the most important early artist working from studio space designed primarily for portrait work. As a result, the famous and the ambitious alike flocked to his galleries in New York and Washington, eager to have their likenesses, and perhaps their fortunes, “made”. Brady and his staff were pioneers in the craft of staged sittings, featuring scenic backdrops, props, and even a different way of posing their subjects. The 1860 portrait of Lincoln taken just ahead of his historic launch at a speech at New York’s Cooper Union shows a clear, confident young politician directly engaging the camera, not staring off to the side, as was the custom in many other portraits of the time. But, even as Brady introduced artistic touches to his work, he was no dainty dilettante : he saw in photography a tremendous business opportunity, and worked constantly to expand its effect and reach. And the first thing he did to attach more fame to his Manhattan studio was to leave it.
The artist as subject: a studio portrait of photographic pioneer Matthew Brady, taken in the 1860’s.
Brady’s famous quote about his urge to take his enterprise to the new battlefields of the Civil War (“I had to go; a sprit in my feet said, ‘go’, and I went”) may sound like a description of a grand adventure, but it was, essentially, a way to grow the market for his product. In sending fully equipped shooting and processing wagons to the front, he was, wittingly or not, inventing the demand for documentary photography, for a newly pictorial kind of war journalism. He and his teams became the first in the world to provide blanket coverage of an active cataclysm, an approach so stunningly novel that it created a global sensation when he mounted the first exhibition of the results, “The Dead Of Antietam” back at his home gallery in New York.
More of interest to the millions of amateur photographers that would come a generation later, Brady moved the science of the art forward in ways that would eventually improve the ease and efficiency of the process of picture-making for the average shooter. In addition, in freeing the camera from the studio, he lit a rocket under the way advertisements, newspaper articles and books were marketed. Steel engravings and pencil drawings of major events in local gazettes soon gave way to photographic inserts in even small papers, and a fundamental change in how politicians, goods and ideas were “sold” to the public. And then there is the legacy of his amazing portrait work. Absent a million tiny nuances about Lincoln the complete man that are now lost to us, even in the mountain of print that survives on him, generation after generation continues to feel it “knows” him through the mosaic of images snatched out of time by Brady and others. In unleashing the camera’s complete potential, he can be rightfully called the godfather of all modern media, the creator of the grammar by which we visually engage the world around us.