Monday, August 14, 2006

The Brady Bunch

Matthew Brady has been coming up a lot lately, praised as the patriarch of battlefield photojournalism.

Humans have short memories, and most people don't realize that the concept of photography as a component of a news story is only a century and a half old, introduced most vividly when Matthew Brady shocked the nation with grisly battlefield photos from Antietam in 1862, using primitive but, for the time, effective techniques.

Writers often forget, though, as this one does, that Brady was not a journalist.

Brady is often credited with bringing the war home, in the images that appeared in newspapers all across the North.

Not quite. Brady's photos of the dead were presented in gallery shows. Newspapers could not effectively reproduce photographs until the halftone process came of age in the 1890s. Wood engravings based on some of Brady's battlefield photographs were reproduced in the magazine Harper's Weekly, but not the photographs themselves.

In the current war, opinion seems split over the appropriateness of seeking out and publicizing photos of American dead. Not surprisingly, people who oppose the war tend to be most assertive that Americans "need to see" such pictures. Those who support the war amid flagging popular support tend to see this drive to print photos of dead soldiers as more evidence of media bias.

Supporters of the "show America her dead boys" journalism often cite Brady. You frequently see quoted this passage from the New York Times review of his groundbreaking, and electrifying, exhibit of pictures of the dead at Antietam:

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and ernestness [sic] of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.

Not as often quoted, however, are some of the subsequent lines of the review:

[Visitors crowded the gallery in] hushed, reverend [sic] groups … bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes…. We would scarce choose to be in the gallery when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies that lie ready for the gaping trenches.

The human dilemma involved in such photography was present, and noted, from the beginning.

Also seldom acknowledged is that, if Brady was the father of battlefield photojournalism, he also was the father of the manipulated battlefield photograph. These tactics, too, are as old as the art. As the Slate article notes:

When a general failed to show up for a group photograph of Gen. William Sherman and his staff, Brady had him photographed the next day, and spliced his image into the ensemble.

Brady -- or rather, his team of photographers who actually went to the battlefields and took most of the pictures Brady sold under his name -- were not above dragging the corpse of some poor dead Confederate around the landscape to arrange the most pathetic possible shots.