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Mathew Brady

“Results are uncertain even among the more experienced photographers.” — Mathew Brady

Although the Englishman Roger Fenton had already sent pictures from the front lines—in the Crimean War—a few years previously, neither his nor Brady's Civil War images represented war photography as we now know it. Due to long exposure times and complicated chemical processes, Brady was hardly ever able to capture a battle in progress. He recorded the before and after phases, but when the bullets began to fly, the medium of photography—barely a quarter century after its invention—was still too slow. Brady's archive contains pictures of forts, trenches, cannon and mortars, arsenals and covered wagon parks. We see the armored ships and sidewheel steamers of the Federal Navy, but not the battles they fought in the harbors and at sea. Instead, there is portrait after portrait of groups and individuals: the battalions and crews on deck, the officers, generals, and, finally, President Abraham Lincoln visiting the troops. Hardly has the infantry marched in with fixed bayonets when the men lie dead on the ground. These are the most harrowing images of all—the bodies of Confederate and Union troops littering the battlefields of Antietam, Maryland, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

And then the bombed and shelled Richmond, Virginia. This was the seat of the Confederate high command, who shortly before abandoning it blew up the powder stores, devastating the center of town. Not until the uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871 would such ghostly ruins be photographed again. The Scotsman Alexander Gardner (1821—1882), originally business manager of Brady's Washington branch, worked for him only during the first year of the War of Secession. After a quarrel over the rights to his pictures, he set up shop on his own. Gardner's work as Photographer to the Army of the Potomac culminated in 1866 with a two-volume documentation, Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War. Nearly half of its photographs were actually taken by Timothy O'Sullivan (ca. 1840—1882), a former apprentice in Brady's studio, who entered Gardner's employ in 1862—1863.

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan

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