Photographer Spotlight: Mathew B. Brady

Sunrise. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2014
Sunrise. Sugarloaf Mountain, Colorado, 2014

I just finished going through Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man (1947, with later reprints) by Roy Meredith about the incredible Mr. Brady (1823-1896), which included some 350 images from the period. I had known something of Brady’s contributions before, but not the details.


This is a definite must read for the photographer interested in either Civil War history or the history of photography.

Here are some of the more interesting highlights:

–Brady is considered to be the Civil War photographer and was the first to attempt war photojournalism on a planned, systematic scale.

–He didn’t take all of the Civil War pictures–he hired some 20 photographers to work for him. They worked in teams and covered the various theaters of war. Brady, however, was the undisputed director of it all–and he funded the whole thing, too–so he generally gets the credit for the whole collection of images.

–The soldiers called his photographic wagons, “Whatsit” or Whatizzit” wagons as they were such a novelty.

–He was arguably the undisputed top photographer of the1840s through the 1870s, having won first place honors at the 1851 London World’s Fair for the quality of his daguerreotypes.

–His Civil War and later images were primarily done using the wet plate process, which required the photographer to develop the glass plate within about ten minutes of the exposure (depending on temperature–warmer temps = less time, colder temps = more time).

–On several occasions he came under direct fire from the Confederate side and, once, very nearly was killed. (The other side may have thought his big Anthony camera on the tripod with its big, brass lens was a new, bizarre weapon.)

–His New York and Washington, D.C. photo galleries were tremendous successes during the late 1840s through the end of the Civil War and anybody who was anybody in high society went to him for a sitting. Especially coveted were his large (and expensive) “Imperial” prints (14×17 to 17×20).

–Also very popular, especially as the nation ramped up to war, were his cartes des visites, sort of an early photographic calling card. They were “massed produced” with a camera with six lenses and the soldiers going off to war piled in by the thousands to have them made for their loved ones.

–Brady married the daughter of a Washington, D.C. lawyer (and sort of an adopted daughter of Andrew Jackson), Julia Handy, who was extremely supportive of his career and helped maintain their contacts in the nations highest social circles. It was a blow to Brady when she died in 1887.

–The “B” as Brady’s middle initial doesn’t stand for anything–it was there for appearances only.

–He practiced a bit of 19th century “photobombing“–you can see Brady in a number of his images of troops in the field.

–You’ll often see the “Brady chair” in many of Brady’s photographs. This was actually Lincoln’s chair when the latter was a representative from Illinois and was a gift to Brady. It was used for many famous sittings over the years.

–If you have ever cracked open a high school or university history textbook you have likely seen his photographs–especially those of Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, some of the gruesome post-battle Civil War scenes, and the hanging of the John Wilkes Booth co-conspirators (which included a woman, by the way).

–His biggest “missed” shot: The surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox Court House. He did, however, make images of the McLean House and the empty rooms after the fact. He just didn’t get word with enough notice to get to the site on time.

–One of his images of Lincoln was used on the five dollar bill.

–In later years, his eyesight began to fail him (along with his finances). The vision loss had to be maddening for a man who devoted his life to the visual arts.

–Brady, a man who always walked quickly about town, was hit by a runaway horse cart, suffered some severe injuries from which he never really recovered, and he died penniless in 1896 (when my own grandfather was five years old!). A sad fate for a man who contributed so much to the recording of the great persons and great events of his time. Continue reading

Flood repairs continue

It has been almost eight months since the Great Flood of 2013 and still the repairs go on, and they will for some time yet. If you have driven Highway 36 between Lyons and Estes Park recently, you’ll know what I mean–they are doing some major blasting and moving of the road to make it less prone to flood damage in the future…and many folks in the flood plain just above Lyons still have not recovered (homes destroyed and their land now a field of head-sized boulders).

I’ll try to post some images of this area sometime in the future.

Around here, Lyons probably got the lion’s share of press (so to speak) just after the flood, but there was another area that was hit pretty hard that didn’t seem to get the headlines: Fourmile Canyon, just above Boulder. Those folks have endured something like three major fires and now a once-in-a-lifetime (if we are lucky) flood during the last three to five years. It says a lot about the grit of those mountain people that many are rebuilding and staying put…although I have seen a few “For Sale” signs sprinkled here and there.

When photographing these areas, be sensitive. What these folks have gone through, who really knows and a little empathy goes a long way. Don’t trespass. Engage the residents in conversation and listen to their stories–as my Arizona friend and fellow photographer, Jim Dublinski, did on this day.

May the following years be a bit more tranquil for those affected.

Some images of the area:

Flood Aftermath, #2. Four Mile Canyon, Colorado, 2014
Flood Aftermath, #2 (Debris). Fourmile Canyon, Colorado, 2014
Flood Aftermath, #1. Four Mile Canyon, Colorado, 2014
Flood Aftermath, #1 (Rebuilding). Fourmile Canyon, Colorado, 2014
Flood Aftermath, #3. Four Mile Canyon, Colorado, 2014
Flood Aftermath, #3 (A very close call). Fourmile Canyon, Colorado, 2014
Flood Aftermath, #4. Four Mile Canyon, Colorado, 2014
Flood Aftermath, #4 (The arbitrariness of it all). Fourmile Canyon, Colorado, 2014
Rural Mailbox--a survivor. Four Mile Canyon, Colorado, 2014
Rural Mailbox (A survivor). Fourmile Canyon, Colorado, 2014

Hidden faces, hidden meaning

Boulder Falls, La Llorona. Colorado, 2014
Boulder Falls, La Llorona. Colorado, 2014

Is it just me? I seem to see faces everywhere.

What do you see in the above image? To me, it looks like the face of a person (man? woman?) who might be crying.

The legendary “La Llorona” could it be?

That is, the woman who wanders the Earth, crying…searching for the children she drowned so that she might finally enter Heaven. These were her own offspring she did away with with the hope of winning the man she loved. Even after the dreadful crime, the man, it is said, would not have her…so she drowned herself in a river.

So it is that she continues to wander Purgatory, weeping as she goes…

And perhaps here, then, is where you find her tears…

Water. Boulder Creek, Colorado, 2014
Water. Boulder Creek, Colorado, 2014

A part of the whole

Boulder Falls, Abstract. Colorado, 2014
Boulder Falls, Abstract. Colorado, 2014

How much of something do you have to capture in order to capture the essence of the whole?

I remember a blog post by Thom Hogan some time back about this idea. He had just returned from one of his African photo safaris and was wondering…Do you always have to capture the entire subject if your goal is to communicate something of the fundamental nature of that subject? With his comments, he was referring to the entire giraffe, the entire rhino, the entire hyena, etc., but it applies to just about anything you might photograph. (Come to think of it, it likely applies to all the arts–music, literature, painting, sculpture, opera, theater…)

Take the case above. This is an image made at Boulder Falls–but it is likely not an image you have ever seen before of this oft-photographed cascade. Does it communicate to you something of the soul of the water and the rock that you find in that special place?

The next time you approach a subject–be it a waterfall, a rhino, an architectural icon, a landscape, or even your own child–go ahead and make that photograph of the entire subject…but then, start moving in and see if you can’t find some part of the whole that might communicate something more of the subject’s inner soul.

Unbridled Growth

The Sprawl Continues. Near Golden, Colorado, 2014
The Sprawl Continues. Near Golden, Colorado, 2014

When will it stop?

The Earth’s surface is finite, so, at some point, we will eventually populate, pave over, farm, build on, fish in, live on, or otherwise severely affect just about every square centimeter of surface capable of maintaining some sort of human activity.

As Edward Abbey said: “Growth for the sake of growth. The ethic of the noble cancer cell.” Or something like that, as best as I can remember.

This kind of growth I have personally witnessed in two places especially…two places where I spent a significant number of years: Phoenix, Arizona and San Antonio, Texas. There are many other places that have experienced unbridled growth just as much as these two, so I’d say these cities are just two small sketches within a much larger picture that spans the globe.

When we moved to Phoenix in 1968, the population was somewhere around 500,000. The interstate up to the sleepy mountain burg of Flagstaff was yet to be completed. Sedona was just a gas station. There were more than 100,000 times more rattlesnakes in the desert than there were golf courses. (Just ask Rick Fritz–the fangs of one serpent found his shin not 1/2 mile from our house.)

Currently, the population of Phoenix is approaching 2 million. God knows where they will get the water in a few more decades. (Echoes of the Anasazi and their mysterious “disappearance”?) I still have many friends in the Valley of the Sun and I enjoy seeing them. But I don’t much enjoy the city any more.

When asked, I always say, “Yeah, I grew up in Phoenix–before it was Los Angeles.”

San Antonio has much the same story: clear the land…put in the streets…build the “planned” subdivisions…build the strip malls…then lather, rinse, repeat progressively farther out from the center (the original I-410 ring). Curiously, for all the planning, there was no way to walk to the house 100 feet behind ours in the Stone Oak area as it was in a different “planned” community–so, you had to drive, following the nicely “planned” boulevards with no bike lanes. And, oh yeah, it was a 25-mile drive to our dentist (but I guess that last was our choice).

Imagine, though, what San Antonio would be like if they had confined growth to inside the 410 loop (build up instead of out) and if they had set up a huge green belt of parks and trails in the zone between 410 and the 1604 loop! THAT would have been a great city! But, no, when there is money to be made in real estate, and when everyone wants their little 60’x100′ rectangle of lawn in the backyard, there is no stopping the growth motor. The “free market” at work?

Again, I have many friends in San Antonio, but I would never live there again and it hurts to visit and see the change.

What’s the solution? Heck, I’m not smart enough to know. I think Mother Nature knows, though. She, along with the Rule of the Cycles of Civilization will ensure that there will eventually be a correction.

Too bad we couldn’t be smart enough as a species to gently guide those corrections ourselves.

Spring is in the air (but where!?)

Loveland Pass, The Bowl. Colorado, 2014
Loveland Pass, The Bowl. Colorado, 2014

Yes, the trees are beginning to bloom in Boulder…folks are walking around in shorts…I see that Tucson is regularly hitting the 80s now (even the 90s!)…Easter and the Bunny have come and gone…

So, spring is mo’ definitely in the air.

But, there are still places that are holding out, and I like that.

I prefer photographing when the weather conditions are harsh or unusual. So, for me, the coming of spring heralds the end of months of beautiful storms, fog, snow, strange clouds, frozen creeks, and so on. Thus my trip today up to Loveland Pass (Guanella Pass still closed–my original destination) then on to Arapahoe Basin for a few runs on slightly icy groomed runs (“coral reefs” outside of the groomed areas!).

At Loveland Pass:

Loveland Pass, Colorado. April 23, 2014
Loveland Pass, Colorado. April 23, 2014

It will be awhile before the snow melts back and the wild flowers begin to bloom!

Loveland Pass. The view west toward A Basin. April 23, 2014
Loveland Pass. The view west toward A Basin. April 23, 2014

The Flip Flop

The Flip Flop. Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado, 2014
The Flip Flop. Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado, 2014

A found object…sort of. It was a few feet away along the bank of the creek and I moved it onto the rock.

Is that legal!? Don’t care; just did it. There are no rules…

It is, perhaps, meant as a bit of sarcasm pointed at all those pretty creek images in which the photographer places a perfect golden leaf on the wet rock in the foreground.

“That’s one small step for a child; one giant slippery leap to the next rock…”

Thanks for visiting!