Photography: Narcissism and Realism

by Kevin Hudson

In March of 1839, Samuel F. B. Morse was in Paris attempting to secure a patent on his new electric telegraph. During his stay, he met with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, an inventor who had worked under Nicéphore Niépce, the father of photography. Morse invited Daguerre to a demonstration of his telegraph, and Daguerre showed Morse images produced from his copper plates. Daguerre had discovered how, using mercury and salts, to develop and fix an image that had been produced with very little exposure time. The day after witnessing the results of this groundbreaking process, Morse wrote a letter to his brother claiming that “no painting or engraving ever approached it.”1

The French government bought the technology from Daguerre with a 6,000 franc annuity. With this arrangement, on August 19, 1839, the French government offered the newly developed technology to the world. The news spread quickly. On September 30, the New York Herald published a detailed, six-step process of the “new art.”2 Within a year, self-taught photographers were taking pictures of the pyramids in Egypt and the Parthenon in Athens.3


Light was a much more precise artist, if one knew how to capture it.


There is a direct connection between Daguerre and the photograph “Harvest of Death” described in Kimberly Becker’s poem. It started with the meeting between Daguerre and Morse. After Morse came back to America, needing money to help finance his telegraph patents, he started a school to teach Daguerre’s method. Morse was President of the National Academy of Design, so he had a general interest in all things aesthetic, and as a portraitist, he was fascinated with the detail made possible by Daguerre’s method.4 One could take a magnifying glass across a daguerreotype picture and make out the tiniest of details, something not possible with renditions produced by the human hand. Light was a much more precise artist, if one knew how to capture it.

Although Daguerre’s method revolutionized the art of the image, it would need a couple of adjustments to accommodate what the public really wanted: personal portraits. The daguerreotype was fine for buildings and landscapes that maintained a stiff posture but not for restless people prone to distraction and movement. Moreover, the daguerreotype was a positive print. Unlike with negatives, from which multiple copies can be made, making copies from positives could only be achieved by taking a picture of the original. Over the next few years, inventive entrepreneurs responded. Once exposure times were reduced and negatives were introduced, faster and cheaper portraits became accessible to the general public.

As fate would have it, one of Morse’s students was Mathew Brady, probably the best known of early American photographers. Brady was a quick study, and he also saw the practical side of the new technology. There was money to be made by taking and selling pictures of famous people, so he opened his own studio in 1844. He set out to create The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a volume of twenty-four select nationally known figures. Brady was very successful, won many awards, and was highly sought after by both common folk and celebrity alike.

Brady offered to take pictures of celebrities for free if they would let him keep a few copies. He made a gallery of these pictures and charged a fee to viewers. Brady sought to collect the best, and the list of his subjects shows he did. He photographed contemporary international superstars like Jenny Lind and Fannie Essler, and famous writers like Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, and Washington Irving. Soon, wanting to amass a similar collection in the political scene, Brady opened a gallery in Washington, DC, giving him to access to an equally impressive lineup of historic figures. He brought his camera obscura to the White House to photograph President James Polk, producing the first photo image of a sitting president. Others who posed for Brady or his studio assistants include Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln (the photograph is on today’s $5 bill), the future Edward VII, King of England, and P. T. Barnum.5 These images and many others drew visitors eager to see the celebrities, if not in the flesh, then in their two-dimensional equivalent. Visitors must have been in awe, standing in the same room with so many famous figures, probably seeing their likenesses for the first time.

Other photographers capitalized on the portrait craze. By 1857, the most popular portraits were the so-called carte de visite.6 Like a calling card, the carte de visite was a personal portrait to be given to the host as a token. Once they became affordable, many people also bought and traded photos of celebrities, much like baseball cards are traded today.


He called it The Dead at Antietam, and the result put to rest any romantic glorification of principles held by both sides.


Meanwhile, business was good for Brady, who had galleries in New York and Washington, DC. In 1856, he hired Alexander Gardner, a Scottish immigrant who came to America for the express purpose of working with Brady to learn more about a new wet plate process that was used in the production of the carte de visite.7 Gardner became successful in his own right, eventually taking some of the most iconic photos for Brady’s studio.

Photography, the telegraph, and railroads were all part of a growing entrepreneurial spirit of an industrial revolution that was sweeping the nation. But soon, unfinished business with the US Constitution would take center stage, dividing the country into two camps. Deeply held convictions ultimately led to fighting, and so the country went to war. Brady decided he wanted to be a part of it, and he used his political connections to embed his team of photographers with the Union army. He would bring the new image technology to the battlefield  of the American Civil War. Other photographers did the same, giving both sides the first realistic accounts of Americans fighting Americans.

The contrast between photographs of celebrities posing in studios and decaying dead bodies on battlefields couldn’t be greater. Brady saw his participation as both an obligation and an opportunity. In fact, Brady was there at the war’s first land battle, the Battle of Bull Run, when Union troops were stunned by the strength of the Confederates. Brady was also present a little more than a year later in September 1862, when he witnessed the devastation of one of the war’s worst days. Robert E. Lee, trying to capitalize on earlier successes, decided to bring the fight onto Union soil. In this Battle of Antietam, Lee met with stiff resistance from General McLellan’s Union troops, and that one day produced more than 22,000 casualties. Within a month, Brady held an exhibit at his Broadway studio in New York City to bring the news to the public. He called it The Dead at Antietam, and the result put to rest any romantic glorification of principles held by both sides. This was real. Battlefields brought death, and Brady was there to capture it. In the Atlantic Monthly, Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote of Brady’s pictures, “We ourselves were upon the battlefield…let him who wishes to know of what war is, look at these series of illustrations.”8 And Steven Cushman wrote, “The sight of these photographs precipitated something like the fall from naive ignorance into troubling knowledge.”9 Photojournalism was born; it was to become an essential part of news reporting.

Brady was also there with his crews at the Battle of Gettysburg. The picture, captured in July 1863, that inspired Becker’s lovely poem was taken by Tim O’Sullivan and developed by Gardner.10 It is among the more famous images of the entire war.

As we did when it was first invented, we still struggle today with the dual nature of the photograph. We humans, after 170 years, have yet to grow tired of our own image. In fact, with the modern-day selfie, it seems as though we can’t get enough of ourselves. Our selfies show our innocence. However, photography is also there to jolt us with another side to our culture, and we are taken aback when we come across those brutal images that challenge our notion of humanity.



1. Newhall Beaumont, The History of Photography (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982), 16.

2. James Horan, Mathew Brady, Historian with a Camera (New York: Crown Publishing, 1955), 5.

3. Beaumont, 27.

4. Horan, 5.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 21.

7. Ibid., 27.

8. Ibid., 42.

9. J. Matthew Gallman and Gary W. Gallagher, eds., Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 170.

10. Ibid., 167.