Mathew Brady: Johnsburg Native and the Father of Photojournalism
Mathew Brady’s Birthplace Mystery Finally Solved
A Recent Discovery Confirms that the Famous Photographer was Born in Johnsburg
The birth place of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady was just recently confirmed. Historians have long known that Brady was born to Irish immigrants, and sometime in his teens moved to New York City, but the exact whereabouts of his birth and where he spent his childhood years were unknown―until little over a year ago, when a four year search finally yielded results. Milda Burns and Glenn Pearsall, two Johnsburg history buffs, used information from the 1830 census as well as Brady’s letters to relatives to locate the famed photog’s birthplace. The 85 year-old Burns told the Post Star, “I read in a book that he was born near Lake George…that ticked me off.” Through their sleuthing, the pair identified Brady’s birthplace in 1823, near the confluence of Glen Creek and the Hudson River. Now, outside of the Wevertown Community Building, a blue marker proudly proclaims the Johnsburg native’s homestead.
Brady left Johnsburg for Saratoga when he was 16, where he befriended renowned painter William Page. The two travelled to Albany and then on to New York City, where a chance meeting with Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the Morse Code (and a highly respected painter in his own right), exposed Brady to Louis Jacques Daguerre’s latest invention, the daguerreotype. Clearly Brady was entranced by the invention and after studying under Morse, he opened his own studio in 1844, where he received acclaim for his portraits.
What we largely know about Brady, was what he shared with us. As arduous a process as photography was in its infancy, the development of photography in the 1830s and 1840s gave many budding practitioners the ability to practice their craft. With a new technology at their fingertips, many of the images produced during this area were mainly portraits. Yet, once the Civil War started in 1861, many photographers immersed themselves in covering the war.
Credited as the ‘father of photojournalism,’ Brady was the first photographer to head into a war zone, and produced photographs that have had a long lasting effect. Brady and his crew of 20 or so men, known as “Brady’s men,” travelled throughout the country in carriages which served as portable darkrooms; they fully captured the devastation of the war.
Using daguerreotypes at first, Brady utilized recent developments at the time, including the ambrotype and the albumen print, a type of paper print produced from large glass negatives that made it more convenient to document the war. Brady’s first photographs of the war involved the Battle of Bull Run; however since the exposure time was very slow, no action photographs could be produced, so many civil war images are of soldiers, standard portraits or images of the aftermath of battle. An exhibit of his photographs, The Dead of Antietam, was held at his New York City gallery in 1862; the images shocked many observers who had never seen the horrors of war up close.
In a New York Times article from October 1862, the writer said about Brady’s coverage:
“As it is, the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee…We recognize the battlefield as a reality, but it stands as a remote one…Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the street, he has done something very like it.”
Not everyone agreed with Brady bringing the war home. But regardless, Brady’s legacy is a famed one. It is Brady’s photograph of Abraham Lincoln on the original $5 bill, and when it was re-designed in 2008 and a new picture was used, it was another Brady photograph [of Lincoln from the same day]. He photographed 18 of the 19 American Presidents from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley (only leaving out William Henry Harrison, who died in office before Brady started the photographic collection). Sadly, Brady passed away deeply in debt and depression. He spent over $100,000 financing his documentation of the war, expecting to be paid back when the government bought his accounts. The government, like many citizens wanted to forget the war, and never bought his photographs. His sad situation perpetuated with the death of his wife and loss of his eyesight. Brady ultimately died on January 15, 1896 from complications following a streetcar accident.
Like many greats, Brady’s genius wasn’t fully realized in his lifetime. Today as we continue to celebrate Mathew Brady’s photographic legacy, we can celebrate proudly, knowing he was not only an American hero, but a local one at that.
–Aubree Cutkomp is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.
The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.
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