On Easter Sunday 1865, the renowned Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady set up his camera on the basement-level back porch of a house at 707 Franklin St. in Richmond. It was tense in the former Confederate capital. President Abraham Lincoln had died the day before at the hands of an assassin. The main Confederate army had surrendered the previous Sunday. And a huge fire had consumed much of the city April 3. Despite that, however, Brady was about to score one of the photographic scoops of his time.

Onto the brick walkway behind the house strode the man renting it, Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the vanquished rebel Army of Northern Virginia. He wore an elegant gray uniform and shined shoes and had a look of dignity and sublime sadness. Perhaps only Brady could have persuaded Lee to pose for a picture at such a time. Only Brady had the moxie to ask.

This moment, which was captured by Brady for posterity, is detailed in a new biography, “Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation,” by Robert Wilson, editor of the American Scholar. It is one of the clear sketches of the elusive photo pioneer that Wilson has been able to nail down in a life that, for the historian, remains filled with unknowns. It’s not known exactly when or where Brady was born, for example — “around 1823,” the author writes, somewhere near Lake George in northern New York. Brady had a severe eye ailment in his youth that made him nearly blind, although its exact nature and long-term effects are not clear. A doctor restored his sight but, Brady said, his “eyes were never strong.” He wore blue-tinted glasses as an adult and wrote very few letters that have survived.

Thus, the personal written record of his life is scanty, and the truth of some of what survives is questionable or exaggerated. There’s little information about his wife, Julia, although there’s an excellent photograph of the couple. The two apparently had no children. There’s no Brady diary and no journal, although later during the Civil War he started to insert himself, for the record, in many of the photographs taken by his staff.

With Brady a hazy figure, the book is understandably light on biography. It’s maddening that such a gigantic, intriguing figure left us so thin a trail. The book’s strength, then, becomes its fascinating account of how the business of photography worked in the mid-19th century. As the head of a world-famous photography enterprise, Brady was seldom the one who clicked the shutter. That was the task of a subordinate called “the operator,” who worked in the “operating room,” often on the top floor of a Brady studio with a huge skylight. He had a succession of elegant galleries in New York and Washington. In 1860, it was in his New York gallery that the visiting Prince of Wales chose to be photographed. The prince gave Brady a ring with a red stone in it as a token of thanks.

”Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation” by Robert Wilson. (Bloomsbury USA)

By the outbreak of the Civil War, Brady was already famous. His gallery had taken an early photograph of Lincoln — which helped get him elected, Brady claimed — and scores of other notables.

But as the war drew photography out of the studio, the nature of the art changed. No longer was the operator a small part of the process. The person behind the camera now became key, and members of Brady’s field crews — like Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan — blossomed and became famed photographers. But it was still the Brady name, like that of a modern TV news celebrity, that commanded attention.

In the case of Lee, the general detested being photographed, the author writes. Brady was undeterred. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady told an interviewer many years later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.” He took six now-famous photographs of Lee on the back porch.

After the war, Brady’s fortunes declined. He was plagued by business troubles. And the great public figures of his day began to die, as did his wife, in Washington’s Providence Hospital in 1887. In 1894, he was injured by a hit-and-run horse carriage while crossing 14th Street at New York Avenue. The next year, he apparently moved back to New York, where someone else wrote his letters for him. He died, battered by illness and poverty, in a New York hospital in 1896 and was buried beside his wife in Congressional Cemetery. He was “around” 72.

After Brady died, a friend went to clean out his room. The only thing of value he found was the ring the prince had given Brady 36 years before.

Ruane is a reporter for The Washington Post.


of a Nation

By Robert Wilson

273 pp. $28