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The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Sat. Aug 25, 2007

Brady Was A Hack

Andrew Sullivan has a post that says, in its entirety, “Whatever happened to the current generation of Matthew Bradys? Missing in action.”

Well, thank goodness for that. As someone intimately familiar with both the history of photography and the Civil War, I can tell you that Matthew Brady was well known as a sour self-promoting character with far more ego than talent. Yes, he did take some famous photos during the Civil War, but he also took the work of talented photographers like Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and others, and proudly presented it as his own. The quote I recall is along the lines of “that photo is so good I’m going to tell the world it’s a Matthew Brady photograph.” He was brazen about it. You might say Matthew Brady invented the concept of “work for hire.”

Andrew’s linked article reads:

The difference between Matthew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War and the hacks following George W. Bush and the ones embedded with the troops is a respect for history past, present and future. Brady endangered himself like a true war photojournalist because he cared about giving future generations accurate documentation of what was unquestionably one of the most important wars in US history.

Welcome to Pottersville: Matthew Brady is Dead and Gone

OK, so you want to call an entire group in one profession hacks with no respect for history. Don’t bloggers get upset when some media hack writes something like, “all these bloggers post anonymously and don’t check their facts, none of them have any respect for journalism”? Because when you lump everyone together like that, you create a false and hyperbolic statement, right? Not all bloggers post anonymously, or lack respect, and not all photographers in Iraq or assigned to the White House are hacks with no respect for history.

But before you write something like “Brady endangered himself like a true war photojournalist because he cared about giving future generations accurate documentation,” you really ought to know a smidgen more about Mr. Brady and Civil War photography.

Brady didn’t endanger himself like photographers in Iraq do today … if at all. In that era, an exposure required one to ten seconds, made onto a plate of glass painted with a coating of chemicals, which had to be exposed and processed before the liquid dried. All done inside a darkened oven of a “darkroom” on a wagon.

In other words, there was no battle photography, and no endangerment. There were photos of the bodies after the battles was over. There were portraits in camp. They were all posed, rigidly, often with a metal “posing stand” behind the model holding their head steady for the lengthy exposure.

And Brady had a well documented ego that preceded his photography business, which he used to further his fame. That’s why he did it, not because of some noble idea that he cared about future generations. There were undoubtedly photographers in that era with that sole motivation, but Brady was not one of them. There were probably a few photographers who managed to get in the line of fire over those four years … but it wasn’t to take photos.

Meanwhile, as of today, 28 photojournalists have been killed while doing their jobs in Iraq. And you just spat on the grave of every one of them.

It appears to me if there is a hack with no respect for history, it’s the quoted author, with his overly broad and erroneous statements.


Peanut Gallery

1  John wrote:

I just heard recently that Brady also engaged in some creative “arrangement of elements” in some of those photographs of the dead. With an eye toward design, I guess.

2  Reid wrote:

Well, Eugene Smith was accused of the same. I’m a bit more tolerant of that than taking the work of others and claiming it as your own. In fact, it’s funny, that blog entry includes what he claims is a Brady photograph, but it’s by Timothy O’Sullivan

3  Scott wrote:

So, for the record, we have one journalist stealing another’s work, and we have one journalist flapping his jaws about something about which he knows only a teeny tiny bit. I loves me some media!

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