The international attention on Syria has happened because the world witnesses compelling video images, apparently taken by amateurs, that showed scores of civilians suffering from the effects of poison gas. The images remind us of the power of a picture to make the ravages of war vividly real to people thousands of miles away from the violence.
As a new book makes clear, we have Mathew Brady to thank for using technology to bring the battle front into the living room. Brady, the famous Civil War photographer, is the subject of “Mathew Brady: A Portrait of a Nation,” a fine biography written by Robert Wilson. Brady, and the photographers who worked for him, popularized the practice of capturing war’s violence with a camera.
War would never be quite the same again. Many still romanticize war, but distancing ourselves from its grim implications has gotten a lot harder now that we have so many tools for documenting its horrors.
Brady, one gathers from Wilson’s book , wasn’t prepared for the bloody scale of what he would witness when he arrived to photograph the battle of Bull Run. He came wearing a white linen duster, straw hat and gold watch fob, an ensemble that Wilson compares to the garb of “a French landscape painter.”
“It’s safe to day that very few people in the vicinity of Bull Run in July of 1861 had any real idea of what they were getting into,” Wilson notes. After the bloody battle, Brady seldom went near a battle field, sending surrogates instead.
Many photographs credited to Brady were taken by surrogates. What he popularized wasn’t so much a singular vision as a tradition — an expectation that the public, too, would now witness war up close.
The world, for better or worse, has never been the same.