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Monday, March 11, 2019

March 11, 2019: Irish Americans: Mathew Brady

[March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that is apparently a far bigger deal in the U.S. than in Ireland. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of famous Irish American cultural figures, leading up to a post on some wonderful Irish American literary voices!]
On a couple historical contexts beyond the Civil War for that conflict’s most famous photographer.
I’m not sure exactly what the percentage would be, but a significant chunk of my visual perspective on the Civil War comes from the photographs of Mathew Brady (he really did only have one ‘t’ in his first name—who knew?). I’ve blogged before about Bruce Catton’s wonderful American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, and along with that book’s stunning battle maps, Catton used Brady’s photographs to great effect throughout. Over time I learned that Brady and his assistants posed some of his post-battle photographs, which only makes sense given the striking amount of time it took to take a picture in the 1860s. And I don’t think those details invalidate at all the importance of Brady’s photojournalism (and that of the men who worked with him, such as Alexander Gardner’s photos of Antietam), particularly in bringing home the war’s effects on individual soldiers, on the battlefields themselves, on every aspect of the material world. I’m quite sure that Brady’s photographs had an impact on Americans’ perspectives on the unfolding war, and I know they did on the understanding of this AmericanStudier more than a century later.
The war was only a handful of years in a life that spanned most of the 19th century (1822-1896), though, and if we broaden our scope Brady’s professional career also connects to other important historical contexts. The son of Irish American immigrants in New York state, Brady began an apprenticeship when he was 16 years old to the talented portrait painter George William Gage, and through him met Gage’s former teacher, the painter and inventor Samuel Morse. Morse had learned about the new science and art of daguerrotyping from none other than Louis Daguerre himself, and was one of the first to bring this new technology back to the United States. He opened a studio in New York City, and Brady was one of the first students, becoming proficient enough to open his own photography studio in the city in 1844. These details help explain Brady’s own journey toward becoming one of the nation’s first famous photographers, but they also illuminate the bridges between painting (and specifically portraiture), daguerrotyping, and photography. Photography would then continue to influence the rise of realism in painting and the visual arts later in the century, adding more layers to these complex cultural interconnections—which in America would remain closely linked to Mathew Brady for the whole second half of the 19th century.
Brady’s photographic career also significantly influenced national perspectives on some of our most prominent cultural and political figures. As early as 1850, Brady organized a collection entitled The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, which featured his photographs of such icons as Edgar Allan Poe and Daniel Webster. Brady photographed Abraham Lincoln on a number of occasions, with some of those influential pictures used as the model for Lincoln’s likeness on the $5 bill and the penny. Indeed, before the end of his life, Brady would photograph all but one of the presidents between John Quincy Adams and William McKinley (he missed out on William Henry Harrison, who died after just a few short months in office). In an era when we see and hear more of our presidents and political figures than we could possibly want, it’s difficult to remember how rare that was, even as recently as the famous 1960 televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon. It was really Mathew Brady who first presented Americans with that opportunity, one more striking legacy of this hugely influential Irish American artist and figure.
Next Irish American tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Irish Americans you’d highlight?

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