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Book Review: Mathew Brady and the Image of History (by Mary Panzer) : AH

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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Mathew Brady and the Image of History, by Mary Panzer, with an essay by Jeane K. Foley, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., (202) 287-3738, 232 pages, $39.95.

Serious scholarship on photographer Mathew Brady has been both scarce and flawed over the past half-century. Roy Meredith's landmark, laudatory biography Mr. Lincoln's Camera Man (1946) stood as the definitive appreciation for generations, but ultimately yielded to a revisionist historical consensus that more credit was due Brady's camera operators than the impresario himself for the great body of work produced under his name during the Civil War. This recent view has tended to overwhelm the opinion expressed by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., in their 1977 book, Mathew Brady and His World, that "Brady was the most important force in early American photography."

Now, accompanying a brilliant exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (scheduled to travel to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard and to the International Center of Photography in New York), comes a catalogue destined to take its place immediately as the most important study yet produced of Brady and his body of work. But readers expecting an homage to him will be disappointed. This is at once a lavishly illustrated analysis of the Brady oeuvre and a shrewd and unsentimental critique of Brady's methods and motivations. Mary Panzer, curator of photography at the Portrait Gallery, has a distinct and original point of view and, utilizing much new research in original sources, sheds important light on the art–and business–of nineteenth-century photography in general and on its most celebrated and criticized practitioner in particular.

Facts about Mathew Brady have always been notoriously hard to pin down. Historians are not even certain about when he was born, though most give the year as 1823. But Panzer's expertly crafted, nine-page chronology, which opens the book, does much to place crucial data about Brady's elusive life and famous work in comprehensible order. From it we learn of Brady's initial exposure to photographic pioneers Samuel F.B. Morse and Samuel Avery, his early contributions to illustrated books, and the awards that greeted his first important work. He clearly blossomed early in his profession and was greeted with wide approbation.

That Brady eventually left the actual working of his cameras to others, preferring to act as host in his studio, is wisely treated as unremarkable. It was what any successful gallery operator did in the mid-nineteenth century, Panzer says. She prudently rejects the new notion that Brady's later work deserves to be discounted because at most he "arranged," but did not expose, it.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is its rich account of Brady's antebellum efforts to create a Gallery of Illustrious Americans–at $15 per gilt-bound copy–featuring lithographic copies of his photographs. This has been documented before, although never so well, but Panzer makes the additional, and quite arresting, point that, paradoxically, Brady seemed most intent on cobbling together his ambitious scrapbook of American unity at precisely the time the Union itself was beginning to come apart. Brady's was actually a conscious effort to promote nationalism at a moment of fragmentation, Panzer believes, while concurrently building his own fame as the undisputed mirror of his age. Panzer adds that Brady never lost his enthusiasm for the famous, even when war made indisputable the great sacrifice of the nameless.

Readers of Columbiad will invariably turn first and most often to the sections of this book dealing with Brady and the Civil War, and they will be rewarded with a bracing new look at the relationship between camera and conflict. Panzer tries to end the debate over who devised the idea of sending cameras to the front–Brady or his brilliant operator, Alexander Gardner–by suggesting it hardly mattered: European photographers had paved the way years earlier during the Crimean War. Even before the Civil War's first battle, Panzer reminds us, the Boston Transcript was already predicting that "any photographer who would follow the Army…and be fortunate enough to obtain views of battles, or even skirmishes, would make a fortune by the sale of copies."

Panzer's Brady is decidedly not the adventurous historian with a camera who sacrificed trade at his profitable portrait galleries in order to travel to the front to record the war for posterity. Rather, he emerges as an ambitious entrepreneur who believed he could make a fortune by following the armies. Besides, Panzer insists, Brady's greatest love remained the portrait, not his more famous post-battle scene littered with dead. "Brady's [wartime] work can be understood as an extension of his earlier efforts to accumulate portraits of men who could claim some significance for the present, and for posterity," she writes. "In addition, it provided an opportunity for the kind of grand flourish that Brady obviously enjoyed…. On the field, Brady could continue to work with men of great fame, whose company gave him pleasure and whose reputations would incidentally, enhance his own." This is provocative analysis indeed.

Panzer provides visual evidence to suggest that the grisly pictures Gardner made at Gettysburg were far more compelling than the broad vistas and landscapes preferred by Brady himself. She says Brady's pictures seemed designed to satisfy readers of the weekly newspapers that based engravings on them, people "for whom these nearly empty landscapes provided a screen on which they could project a private vision of the battle."

Brady strove "to create an ideal historical territory for the American people, and he was successful," Panzer argues. "Today we occupy the past he made from photographs." But Panzer does not concede that it is fully accurate history. Brady considered himself an artist, and his palette could be deceptive. Surely, readers will argue about Panzer's conclusions for many years.

One wishes only that the publisher of this book had made it easier to consider pictures and text together. The volume's seventy-nine handsome plates are inexplicably scattered in separate sections throughout the book, sans captions, with full descriptions and biographies of the subjects lumped together after the endnotes and before the index. The system for citing other illustrations in the running text is similarly confusing. The reproductions may be dazzling, but one wishes that the designers of the book had allowed them to enjoy the prominence and coherence they deserve.

A couple of quibbles should be pointed out. Abraham Lincoln was not a presidential candidate when he sat for Brady for the first time, in February 1860, in New York. And though Brady did make models for artist Francis Carpenter to use in painting the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, the book gives the wrong Lincoln photo as Carpenter's source. Brady's camera operator took new pictures for the 1864 project; the artist did not rely on an outdated 1861 studio portrait.

Altogether, this thought-provoking book has a great deal to recommend it. The two final selections alone, a chronicle of Brady-collecting over the years and a wonderful appendix reproducing contemporary descriptions of Brady and his work, represent major scholarly contributions. And Panzer's eye for detail, vivid writing, and unparalleled appreciation for the co-mingling of the visual arts in Brady's time set this study apart. No one interested in photography during the Civil War can afford to be without it.

Harold Holzer
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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