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Matinee: 'Robert Wilson On Mathew Brady' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

19 September 2015

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 103rd in our series of Saturday matinees today: Robert Wilson On Mathew Brady.

In this 27-minute Drexel Interview conducted by Paula Marantz-Cohen, historian Robert Wilson provides a peek into the life of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.

At the time of this interview, Wilson had just published Mathew Brady, Portraits of a Nation, which was no easy task.

Not a lot is known about Brady, Wilson admits when asked about Brady's influences. Much of what we do know is gleaned from interviews with him in his later years. And he was not, as they say, a reliable source. Especially on this topic.

We do know he came from a farm in upstate New York, moved to New York in his teens and "fell into the energy of the city."

He had eye problems as a boy. Absence of light drove him to the light, he once told a friend, Wilson says. Timing played a role in his choice of profession too. Wilson was on the fringes of the artistic community just as photography came along. He sensed an opportunity.

Wilson says Brady was fond of exaggerating his relationship with Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and a photographer as well. Morse wrote tracts against the Irish but Brady, Irish himself, maintained an amicable business relationship with Morse.

Even in the Civil War, Wilson says, Brady got along with everybody. Brady managed to get Robert E. Lee to pose for him despite hating to have his photo taken just as he arrived home after surrendering at Appomattox. Lincoln had died early that day. Lee agreed to be photographed that afternoon for a seating the next day, Easter morning. It wasn't, Wilson suggests, so much a photo opp as a civic responsibility.

Brady arrived late at Gettysburg. The dead were mostly dead. He posed himself looking at the places where the battles had taken place.

Brady' studio was only a block away from P.T. Barnum's American Museum. Leaving Barnum's building you would see a large sign announcing "Brady's Photographic Studio."

He collected and exhibited portraits of famous historical figures. The way to build his own reputation, he understood as early as the 1840s, was to associate with people who already had a reputation.

Brady's portrait of Lincoln before his Cooper Union address was widely published. Brady would often quote Lincoln that Brady and Cooper had made him President. Brady, however, was apparently the only person to have heard Lincoln say that.

He was more of a director than a technician, Wilson says. The only time we can really be sure Brady was at the scene is when he was in it. The clip highlights a few examples in which Brady appears in his photos.

Brady arrived late at Gettysburg. The dead were mostly dead. He posed himself looking at the places where the battles had taken place. You see, for the first time in photography, Wilson says, the argument that the photographer creates photographs. The prevailing belief was that the sun creates them mechanically, the photographer merely an assistant. Photography wasn't an art but a craft.

Brady is insisting on "the role of a human sensibility" in making a photography, Wilson says.

Wilson also talks about the ethics of staging scenes in an age when there were no firm rules. Brady was always taking studio portraits, even out of doors, posing his scenes.

He had knack for composing a photograph and, Wilson says. You can tell when, looking at a series of images, when Brady had arrived on the scene and posed it. There is a distinct quality to his compositions that his assistants' compositions lacked.

So you could tell it was his work even if he was not in the shot.

He rose to prominence so quickly that he had a hard time dealing with it. The farm boy who went to the city was, within 10 years, photographing Presidents. But at the end of his life, he was being swindled, he had trouble selling his Civil War photographs, he went into debt. His eyesight failed him and his wife passed away. A whole lot of things came into play, Wilson says.

Brady's life came to an end in the charity ward of a New York City hospital after he was hit by a streetcar. He was penniless.

Today you can browse the Library of Congress collection of Brady's Civil War photographs and his portraits online.

His greatest contribution to the art of photography?

Wilson quotes Gary Wills, who summed up Brady's accomplishment after reading the book. Brady didn't just make photographs, he made photography.

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