These days, if we see something interesting going on, it’s pretty easy to pull out our handy-dandy iPhones and snap a pic, sharing it with all of our friends in seconds. Unfortunately for people like Mathew Brady, back in the ol’ days there was nothing like Instagram or Snapchat, and people had to use slow, toxic, confusing processes in order to capture even a single picture. Because of this, we are left with many fewer selfies by average people posing with dying/dead people or action shots taken whilst fighting the enemy, and many more (often staged) static images taken by one of the few photographers at the time.
One of these photographers’ names was Matthew Brady, or as I (along with historians, teachers, writers, and a few others) like to call him, The Father of Photojournalism. Once the war began, he decided he would try to create the ultimate collection to document the war effort, and with the help of his team of men, he did just that. The way he and his men took photos is called Wet Plate Photography, and requires the hand mixing of very toxic chemicals, a large amount of heavy machinery, and extreme patience.
To take the picture, you began by mixing chemicals together into a solution called Collodion, and then coating a sheet of glass with the mixture. Then, in the dark room, you cover the glass with one more chemical, and insert the glass into the camera. To take the picture, the photographer opened the camera cover and exposed the glass to the light for 2 to 3 seconds. Then they had to take the camera back to the studio and develop it.
At Mathew Brady’s first display of photographs, called “The Dead of Antietam,” the nation was shocked at the carnage and reality of the photographs. One person was even recorded saying, “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it…”
Though the means of photography was very different than that of today, it was very advanced for that time, and played a large role in the war. People were forced to face the horror of the war, and it inspired future documentarians to continue taking photographs and eventually videos, bringing wars back home to the people.