Artifact Corner: Episode 28 – Matthew Brady Photograph

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another Artifact Corner. Today we will be looking at a picture that was taken to commemorate the marriage of Fannie Delord Webb Hall and Frank Hall. The two were married on May 14, 1856, and this portrait of them was taken right around the time of their wedding. The couple sat for this picture in New York City at the studio of one of America’s most famous photographers, Mathew Brady. Let’s learn a bit more about Mr. Brady, and the history of photography.

The first photograph is attributed to a man named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (knee-ips). He took a picture from a window on his estate in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes in France in 1826. He achieved this marvel by a process known as heliography. This simply means creating a photoengraving by exposing a metal plate coated in asphalt to sunlight. The total exposure time to produce this image was a staggering eight hours. By the mid 1830’s Louis Daguerre had been working towards shortening the exposure time, and capturing images more reliably. By 1839, Louis Daguerre and Joseph Niepce’s son, Isidore, sold the rights to both the process of creating heliographs and daguerreotypes to the French government. Daguerre also published a book called “An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerreotype and the Diorama,” which became an instant best seller. 29 editions and translations were released that same year. By the end of 1839, daguerreotype studios popped up all over the world.

Mathew Brady was born on May 18, 1822, near Lake George, NY. Not much is known about his early years, except that he was the youngest of three children born to Irish immigrants. In 1839 Brady and portrait painter William Page traveled to NYC and met Samuel F.B. Morse. As it turns out, our family has a connection to both William Page and Samuel Morse! William Page painted the portrait of Frances Delord Webb (Fannie’s mother) in 1832. When Frances Webb and her husband Henry Webb were on their honeymoon in France, they ran into Samuel Morse, and Frances mentions in a letter that Morse is an acquaintance of her husband. In 1839 Morse had traveled back to France and spent time studying with Daguerre. When he returned to NYC, he took on students, and Brady was one of the first to study under Morse.

By 1844 Brady had set up his own studio in NYC on the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street. Brady’s images were widely celebrated, and his popularity grew. This allowed him to photograph some very famous people of his time. He photographed many politicians, the wealthy and affluent of NY, and even literary greats like Edgar Allen Poe. Brady’s career and reputation changed with the onset of the American Civil War. Brady is widely considered the father of photojournalism thanks to his documentation of the battles between the North and the South.

In 1861 Brady petitioned President Lincoln himself to have permission to photograph the battles and the aftermath. Lincoln approved it, but told Brady that he would have to finance the whole thing himself. His family and friends thought this was both financially and personally dangerous, but Brady threw himself headlong into capturing images of the conflict. On more than one occasion he was so close to enemy lines that he was being fired upon. All told, Brady put himself and 23 other men in the field with cameras and portable darkrooms. In 1862 Brady opened an exhibition titled The Dead of Antietam. For the first time, real images of war were being shown to the general public. This was not an artists depiction, this was the aftermath of very violent and deadly battles. During the War he based himself in Washington DC to be close to the action. This allowed him to photograph many of the Union Generals.

Brady spent $100,000 of his own money creating 10,000 images of the war. That is the equivalent of $1,670,000 in todays money. Brady fully expected that the government would buy his works and help him defray the cost of the endeavor, but the government refused. Brady was forced to sell his NYC studio, and he fell into bankruptcy. He was never able to recover financially and in 1896 he died penniless in the charity ward of a hospital in NYC.

Brady’s work has shaped our understanding of the Civil War in a way that no other media could. For the first time in US history, people had to confront the gruesome results of war. His work also documented camp life, and preserved the images of the men who fought. We owe Brady an immeasurable debt for his work. We are so lucky to have this beautiful portrait of Fannie and Frank, taken at Brady’s studio. We hope you enjoyed this look back at one of America’s most famous photographers. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,