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Brady's men: 1861-1865

When the Civil War begins, in 1861, Mathew Brady is the most successful portrait photographer in the USA. Deciding to undertake a photographic record of the conflict, as a commercial venture funded by himself (eventually at a cost of some $100,000), he equips a number of photographic teams with darkroom wagons - of the kind pioneered by Fenton in the Crimean War. Eventually Brady has as many as twenty photographers in the field.

Some of the best of them set up on their own account before the end of the war, partly because Brady insists on their images bearing his name alone. But the crucial initiative has been his, in an enterprise which vividly captures the tone of the war.

No war is pleasant - and the Civil War perhaps is exceptionally unpleasant - but it is hard for art to convey horror. A good painting or series of prints (such as Goya's etchings of the Disasters of War) has a beauty which to some extent plays against the grain of the subject. But a photograph can be both a striking image and an appalling one. A brilliant example is The Harvest of Death, by one of Brady's ex-employees Timothy O'Sullivan, showing the dead on the field of Gettysburg in 1863.

The Civil War ruins Brady, who dies forgotten in a charity hospital in New York in 1896. But the twelve-volume Photographic History of the Civil War (1911-12), the result of his initiative, is an unparalleled early record of modern war.

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