On February 27, 1860, while on a visit to New York City, Abraham Lincoln walked into the Broadway studio of photographer Mathew Brady and posed for a picture. For many Americans, this photograph, taken the same day as Lincoln’s important Cooper Union speech, would be the visual introduction to the man who later that year would be elected president.
Brady, perhaps the most important American photographer of the 19th century, photographed an impressive list of famous people: more than a dozen U.S. presidents, generals galore, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, and so on. He had a knack for marketing, photographing the famous for free and then displaying their images in his studio to draw in paying customers. In 1856 he ran an add in The New York Daily Tribune with the line “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late” — i.e., get your picture now, because who knows how long you or a loved one will be around. When the American Civil War began in 1861 and fresh recruits prepared to ship out, the wait at his studio was sometimes hours long.
To the general public, Brady is best known for his images of Civil War battlefields. To archivists, he is also known for his poor record keeping. It is not always clear when or where a picture was taken, nor who took it (Brady employed several people who he dispatched to the field to do much of the actual photography).
The Civil War broke Brady. He invested some $100,000 into documenting the conflict, but earned back only a fraction of that, going into bankruptcy. He never recovered.
Mathew B. Brady died in New York City in 1896 and was laid to rest at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. It’s an easy place to visit today, about a three block walk from the Potomac Avenue metro station. Or, if you want to be in the presence of Brady a little more quickly, albeit less directly, pull out the $5 bill you might have in your wallet. That portrait of Lincoln — it is a Brady photo taken on February 9, 1864.
THINGS MENTIONED OR RELATED:
- U.S. National Archives collection of Mathew Brady photographs on Flickr
- The Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC
- Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation, by Robert Wilson