A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy, Part 2: The Sad Tale of Mr. Brady
Updated: Apr 28
“This man…sent his organization into the field of battle to take pictures of the fight that was going on…. This man has given twenty‒five years of his life to one great purpose… to preserving national monuments so far as photographic art can do… with a view of making such a collection as nowhere exists in the world.” ~ Representative James Garfield, speaking before Congress in 1875
Mathew Brady, now famous for his Civil War photos, was the first person to really build an empire around photography. Having learned basic photographic skills from Samuel Morse of telegraph and code fame, Brady first opened a gallery in Washington, DC in 1849. His skills were so well developed that in 1851 he won the Grand Prize at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. The fame that came from the award made him very popular, and soon he opened galleries in other cities.
Brady, of course, couldn’t be everywhere at once, and he began to employ other photographers to take the routine portraits in his studios. In a brilliant marketing ploy for the time, Brady insisted that every photograph that came from his studios must be stamped “Photograph by Brady”, regardless of who had actually taken the picture. Over the years, some 7,000 portraits appeared with the Brady stamp on them. Only the ones of Presidents and other prominent people were actually taken by Brady.
When the Civil War broke out, Brady became obsessed with documenting the conflict. Although he had no experience in what was then called field photography, Brady set out in a horse-drawn wagon that served as his portable darkroom. His friends tried to discourage him from getting so close to the battles, but later he said “I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.”
Because there were so many battles and so much to document, within a short time he employed the same methods he had used in his studios: he hired other photographers to take the pictures for him. Among those he employed were some who would later become well-known on their own, including Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan. In total, he had 23 photographers working for him, and their immense output of nearly 10,000 images earned him the title of “father of photojournalism.”
Brady had originally begun to document the Civil War with the approval of President Lincoln, who also said that due to the demands on the national treasury Brady must finance the work himself. When the war ended, Brady felt sure that his unique photographic record would be purchased by the government. He even got then-Representative (and later President) James A. Garfield to make his case before Congress.
He had hoped to be given $150,000 for his collection, but in 1875 Congress allocated only $25,000. This payment represented the first official acknowledgment by the U.S. government that photographs have a historical value that is worth preserving.
Unfortunately, for Brady it was too little, too late. By this time the public was weary of the stark images of the war, and Brady was left in substantial debt from his considerable wartime expenses. He was forced to declare bankruptcy and close all of his studios.
Mathew Brady spent the next 21 years living in misery. His greatest accomplishment was all but forgotten, his eyesight had failed, and he lived out the rest of his life in relative seclusion. He died penniless in the charity ward of a hospital in New York City in 1896.
While the circumstances surrounding Brady’s situation were unique, there are discussion points that are relevant today. Like government, philanthropy can be slow to respond to changing times. For many years the Guggenheim and other foundations have provided support for individual photographers, and they’ve played an important role in supporting both the art and craft. But in the rapidly changing world of Web 2.0 and beyond, the pace of photography has increased exponentially. Instagram alone reports that over 20 billion photos are uploaded every year, and that number continues to rise.
How are donors supposed to balance the need for advancing the art of individual photographers vs. supporting the massively expanding universe of photography itself?
My strong sense is that the universe will take care of itself, and that individual photographers are what really count. We need more support for the tens of thousands of true artists, documentarians, journalists and others who bring to their work that passion that Mathew Brady did. Many photographers I know have a “shoot first, eat later” philosophy, and I definitely appreciate that. But it shouldn’t have to be that way. There should be more philanthropic support for the hardest working photographers of today, as well as the galleries, museums, and publishers that further their work. Let’s hope that our generations recognize the importance of what is being done today, and we won’t wind up with some of our best talent living on the streets.
This article is part of the series A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy:
Part 1: It All Started When It Started Part 2: The Sad Tale of Mr. Brady Part 3: Westward the Course of the Empire Part 4: Lewis Hine and the Legacy of the Human Document Part 5: “A Mighty Fine Deed of Mr. Morgan” Part 6: George Eastman’s Radical Generosity Part 7: Saint Albert of San Francisco