Portraits of War

President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan, October 3rd, 1862. Photographed by Mathew Brady.

Long before he invented the single-wire telegraph system and Morse Code, Samuel Morse was a painter. Throughout the 1830s he traveled around Europe painting and studying art, spending a particularly large amount of time in Paris. It was there, in 1839, that Samuel Morse met Louis Daguerre. Fascinated with the daguerreotype process, Morse wrote to the New York Observer and passed along a detailed description of this new technology, word of which spread throughout America.

When he returned to America, Morse was swamped with students, including the young Matthew Brady, who was only sixteen years old. By 1944, Matthew Brady was so skilled at making daguerrotypes that he opened his own studio. Along with taking famous photographs of prominent Americans, Brady also took pictures of soldiers home on leave. It was then that he got what he called “itchy feet,” a great desire to travel around the country observing, and photographing, war.

The task was expensive and dangerous and he was discouraged by everyone he knew, but Brady persisted, and not only did he capture some of the most iconic images of war that we have today, he basically invented the field of photojournalism. His popular shows around the country displayed, for the first time, photographs of dead bodies, capturing the real horror of war in a way written accounts could not.

It is a cruel irony that Brady’s eyesight began to fail him and that the cost of pursuing photography ruined him financially. On a January day in 1896 he was hit by a streetcar and died shorty thereafter, penniless, in the charity ward of a New York Hospital.

Photojournalism took photography to a new level. Once a curiosity, then used for stiff and formal portraits, photography was transformed into a medium for visual storytelling

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