This picture is entitled “The Harvest of Death” and is one of the most famous to come out of Matthew Brady’s extensive Gettysburg photograph collection.
Matthew Brady did not take this picture. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, one of the young men hired by Brady to take pictures on the battlefields of the Civil War, took it. Nevertheless, Brady was the one who sold it and developed the negative, and so his name was the first associated with the resulting print.
And a year earlier, after the battle of Antietam, Brady and his crew had brought civilian America its first glimpses of the horrors and gores of war with shots similar to this one of dead soldiers on blood-stained dirt.
And these things sold like hotcakes. Newspapers and periodicals, propaganda machines and mourning families alike all wanted pieces of Brady’s ever-growing anthology of war photos.
Even before the war, Brady had been an aspiring photographer, fascinated by both the art and science of the camera. His work was never lucrative, and he wasn’t able to live a comfortable life. But when the war came, he knew he had found his big break. Without being heartless and completely emotionally unattached from the pain the war was causing the country, he was still able to see each battle as a font of opportunity for pictures that, for once, he knew would sell well.
He did everything it took to get those photographs. He followed armies and acquired boys like Timothy H. O’Sullivan to do the same, and after the guns had stopped smoking, his equipment would take up the shooting. If there was a particularly artistic patch of land that happened to have no bodies, he and his crew would move them into position before shooting. If one body had particularly interesting wounds, Brady would have it carted and hauled around the field, propped up and down as a garnish for his photos.
And when someone who was not one of his sequestered help took a battlefield picture that he lusted after, he would spend whatever money it took to get it, even if it meant going into debt.
When the war was over, and the sale of his photos began to dwindle and fade into nothing, he came to the unfortunate realization that his striving had a net cost. As the union was trying to recover from its near fracture, Matthew Brady was floundering in the red of his business ledger, having by no means increased his comfort or his fame.
Brady was more than an artist: he was an entrepreneur…albeit a bad one. And he had a dream that his art and his business would take him somewhere and make him someone. But when he died, he died poor. His name, though it was printed in every caption of the photos that he had purchased with his sweat and borrowed money, never reached very far or had much clout where it went.
But today, the Library of Congress creates lesson plans to teach students about his methods and his results, and Wikipedia uses his work as the token photograph for many Civil War battles. And when I was planning my summer Gettysburg blog posts, I knew that I had to include him in the set.
I think of Brady as one of the first viral artists: his success was a flash in a can and could not sustain his life or his aspirations. His presence in our modern age may be more related to the war he followed than his contemporary fame, but he still leads me to wonder where the Gregory brothers will be in the annals of history in a hundred and fifty years. If Brady made it into the Library of Congress—with his questionable photojournalistic methods—could it be that children will one day be studying the political and media parodies of YouTube, Reddit, and Tumblr?
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.