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Mathew B. Brady

Celebrated for his portraits of contemporary celebrities, presidents, and politicians and for his photographs of the American Civil War, Matthew B. Brady (1823-1896) is one of the best-known American photographers.

At the tender age of 16, artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse taught Brady how to take daguerreotypes. In 1844, at age 21, Brady opened his first studio in New York City. In 1849, he opened a second studio in Washington, D.C. At the height of his career, Brady had four studios in full operation--three in New York and one in Washington, D.C. However, in later years, Brady's studios were concentrated throughout Washington, D.C.

Brady's fame comes from his Civil War photos and his vast collection of photographs of famous persons. In 1845, Brady began his project of photographing as many celebrities of his time as he could. His collection included John James Audubon, Edward, the Prince of Wales, Daniel Webster, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Fenimore Cooper. Adding to his great prestige are the presidential portraits, created or copied, of every U.S. president from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley, with the exception of William Henry Harrison who died a month after his inauguration. Brady won critical acclaim at home and abroad.

The American Civil War erupted in 1861 and Brady decided to make a complete record of the conflict. He hired a small army of 20 or more photographers to canvass the war zones throughout the North and South. Brady set up his headquarters in Washington, D.C., but probably photographed such battlefields as Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg himself. For certain, Brady personally took the memorable photographs of Abraham Lincoln in the field and his funeral procession and of Robert E. Lee shortly after his surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.

In the course of the four years of conflict, Brady invested nearly $100,000 into his Civil War project. At the onset of his project, Brady was confident the government would buy his photographs at the end of the war. To his dismay, the government was not interested, and Brady was financially ruined. By 1873, Brady declared bankruptcy. Brady was forced to sell his studios one by one and to hold public auctions of his negatives and prints to pay his debts. Finally, in 1875, Congress granted Brady $25,000 for his work, but he never regained financial solvency. He spent his remaining years exhibiting his work in New York and Washington, D.C., at any gallery--public or private--that would accept his work.

Forgotten, Brady died an alcoholic and alone in a hospital charity ward in New York City. He is buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.




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