Photojournalism Column 
Looking Back at Brady
by Dennis Brack
This morning, if the U.S. military launches a major response to an aggressor, like it did in the Gulf War, a press pool will be activated and sent with the forward units. Three photojournalists from wire services and magazines will cover the action with 35mm digital cameras. They will download their images to a laptop computer, and use a satellite phone, about the size of the laptop, to send the images via EMARSAT back to the U.S. Within minutes the images will be seen by the American public on television and the Internet, within hours they will be printed in newspapers. The moment the images are received by the wire service, they will be archived in the wire service database, and available, in theory, for centuries as a source for historians as well as the public.

Times and technology have changed. Matthew Brady and his associates were the first photographers to record the images of war, and bring these images to the American public. By using what was called the "Wet Plate" process, these photographers made their "film" on glass plates, taking the photograph and then developing these plates. The entire process was performed right on the battlefield.

Today, we have fast lenses and fast shutter speeds. In Brady's day, the only fast thing was Brady. He had just three minutes to make his exposure after sensitizing the colodium-covered glass plate with a solution of silver nitrate--creating silver iodide. The process had to be done in the dark, so a portable darkroom, or wagon, needed to be close at hand. In fact, these portable darkrooms are often seen in the background of many Civil War photographs.

The photographer loaded his damp plate into a light-tight holder and rushed to his camera. There was nothing candid about this photography. On a sunny day, the exposure could be as long as 20 seconds. Photographers traveled with clamps which were used to steady the subject during the exposure. The light-tight holder was placed into the camera and the covering slide was pulled, this would then allow the plate to be exposed to the light once the lens cap was removed--Brady's camera did not have a shutter. The photographer holding the lens cap high above his head was a signal for everyone to be very still.

The slow speed of the glass plates made it impossible for Brady to photograph actual combat. Often after a battle, a truce was declared to allow time for the undertakers to collect the bodies. It was during these pauses in the war that Brady and his associates made most of their photographs. Portraits of the men who fought, the officers and generals,  even President Lincoln in the field, were an important part of Brady's coverage of the war.

To develop the photograph, after the exposure was made and before the plate dried, the photographer rapidly took the glass out of the holder and placed it in a solution of iron sulfate, acetic acid, and 190 proof grain alcohol. The development process was stopped by placing the plate in a water rinse, and stabilized by dipping it in a cyanide solution--a chemical cocktail similar to the mixture used in today's gas chambers. Black stains on the skin from the silver nitrate was a common problem for these photographers. One way to solve this problem was to use the cyanide to remove the stains. The photographers knew they were using strong stuff, but these were tough times.

After Brady developed his photographs, he placed his glass plates in racks, and at covered wagon speed they traveled the rutted roads to Washington. Some plates made it, some did not. Imagine how amused Brady would be if he could listen to today's news photographer complain about computer or satellite uplink problems.

The process of printing a photograph in a newspaper had not yet been invented. Nevertheless, Americans got their first look at the horrors of war by viewing pocket sized albumen prints called  "cartes de viste." Hawkers sold them by the thousands on the streets of Washington and New York. The essential ingredient for making these "cartes" was albumen, which is produced from egg whites. At one point during the Civil War T. & E. Anthony and Company, Brady's supplier, was using 300,000 eggs per day. The larger prints were exhibited in New York City galleries, which were as popularly viewed back then, as CNN was on the first night of the Gulf War.

With all of Brady's difficulties, there is one thing he had that would be the envy of any press photographer today - his press credential. Before the Battle of Bull Run, Brady was afraid the troops would not let his wagon through the lines, so he went to President Lincoln and asked for his help. The President took out a thick card and wrote: "Pass Brady, A. Lincoln."


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