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Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation Hardcover – August 6, 2013
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From Publishers Weekly
Everyone's seen his photos—of a confidently cross-armed Whitman, a beardless Lincoln, Civil War dead on the battlefield—but few know much about Mathew Brody, the man behind the camera. In this detailed biography, Wilson (editor of The American Scholar) examines Brady's rise and fall as the principal photographer of 19th-century America, a master of promotion and seminal documentarian of the Civil War. With a keen understanding of photography's potential as an art form and medium for news, Brady catapulted himself before the public eye by shooting numerous famous personages—indeed, through this extensive network of movers and shakers, a portrait develops of a rapidly changing nation. Wilson does a grand job of bringing Brady's era to life—rich descriptions of New York City (the location of Brady's studio) and Washington, D.C., ground the book in a strong sense of place, and the author's contextualization of numerous historic photographs adds depth to Brady's magnificent work. Those with an interest in photography and the Civil War (and especially fans of Timothy Egan's Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher) will savor this telling glimpse into the America first captured on film, and the man who made it happen. 16-page color insert, b&w illus. throughout. (Aug.)
More than any other individual, Mathew Brady is credited with the development of the new medium of photography and its recognition as an art form in the mid-nineteenth century. Photographs taken by Brady or his associates during the Civil War brought the horrors of modern warfare to the general public in a visceral and indelible manner. Yet remarkably little is known about Brady himself, perhaps due to Brady’s own design. Wilson, the editor of American Scholar, does an effective, if sometimes limited, job of exploring both Brady’s personal life and his artistry. He was born around 1823 in upstate New York and raised in a rural environment, but he was quickly attracted to life in New York City. By the middle of the 1840s, he was intoxicated with both the process and possibilities of photography. Wilson chronicles Brady’s rise to prominence as well as the development of the medium leading up to the Civil War, Brady’s role in many of the classic images of the war, and Brady’s sad personal decline in the decades after the war. In the end, however, Brady remains an enigmatic, unknowable character who is best understood through his work as an artist. --Jay Freeman
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There is much new in this little volume that adds to our understanding of Brady's life. The book is even more valuable however, in placing his life within the context of his times and demonstrating how Brady furthered the importance of photography. So much of what we know about the Civil War is because of the thousands of photographs that survive. Robert Wilson's book adds a great deal to the story. It is highly recommended.