Salman Rushdie, in his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), described what we see in a photograph as a moral decision taken in one-eighth of a second.
In the early days of photography, those moral decisions took longer to process. When Mathew Brady, the Civil War-era photographer, took a portrait, the shutter remained open for 10 to 15 seconds or more, long enough for a bit of wind, or the hint of a smile, to ruin everything. His subjects often had their heads stabilized by an unseen vise.
Brady (1823-1896) was Americas first great portrait photographer, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz rolled into one. Those long exposure times were a gift of sorts to a country that was still young. What Bradys images lacked in spontaneity they more than made up for in gravitas. He defined a nations dignified visual sensibility.
Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation is a new biography from Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar. Its a compact, straightforward, unblinking volume that has some of the attributes of its subject.
The details of Bradys war years are both funny and revealing about the age.
He accompanied the Union Army to its first major battle, at Bull Run, and the experience scared him to death. Hed apparently shown up wearing a white linen duster, a straw hat and a gold watch fob.
Did he have any idea what war was like? Wilson asks. If so, why did he dress for it like a French landscape painter?
Bradys biggest photographic accomplishment might have been the familiar image he took of the defeated Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond shortly after the South had surrendered at Appomattox.
It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit, Brady said later in an interview. I thought that to be the right time for the historic picture.
Brady understood the history he was helping to make. As an advertisement for one of his portrait services once warned, accurately if heavy-handedly, You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.