One of the stranger-looking refugees was a short, bearded man with a straw hat and spectacles, and a watch fob dangling from his belt—along with a sword concealed awkwardly under his overcoat. A contemporary said he looked like "a Paris art student." This confused apparition, more comical than belligerent, was Mathew Brady, the most famous photographer in the United States.
From Ted Widmer's "The All-Seeing Eye" at the WBPM*
The linked article is a good short introduction to Mathew Brady, another of history's more interesting photographers. In mid-20th-century America, Brady was considered pre-eminent in the history of American photography. Not so much recently; his star has fallen, as it did over the course of his life.
One of my favorite books about Brady, perhaps oddly, is a book written for young readers by a man named George Sullivan, who specializes in writing books for adolescents (he's written more than a hundred). I spoke to George on the phone at one point and it turns out that Brady has been a special interest of his for much of his life—he even owns Brady memorabilia and collects his photographs.
The book is good on the facts and seems short on the drama—Brady's life lends itself to drama—but that's because so much misinformation exists about Brady's life, and many of the more vivid stories turn out to have been shined a mite too hard. George Sullivan's brief was to create an accurate and sober short portrait that's as reliable as he could make it. It may have been targeted at teenagers, but it's a good and conscientious little book; we'd be lucky to have more like it, frankly.
(Children are better served than adults in one area: books written for them tend to be more adequately illustrated. I've been manfully toiling my way through Douglas Brinkley's epic-length Wheels for the World lately (Douglas is an admirably skilled writer, but needs to learn to strive for concision—then again, it's a quality Dostoevsky and D. H. Lawrence lacked as well), and if ever a book cried out for better illustrations than the obligatory small signature of bad reproductions on plate paper stuck like a tiny lifeboat into the middle of a sea of text, it's that one. As with Bill Bryson's At Home, which I read a few months ago, it sends me repeatedly scuttling to the computer to Google illustrations on my own.)
Called Mathew Brady: His Life and Photographs, George's 1994 book has not been out of print for long and is still findable.
Mathew Brady in 1875
The longtime standard pop bio is James D. Horan's Mathew Brady: Historian with a Camera, which at one point must have been in every middle- and high-school library in America, and the best of the more recent books is Mathew Brady and the Image of History by Mary Panzer, which came out in 1997 but is still available in paperback. I've had that book since it came out in '97 but have yet to read it, alas. Mary is curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C.
*The World's Best Photography Magazine, a.k.a. the New York Times
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.