The Beginning of Photojournalism

Annie69 By Annie69, 24th Aug 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>History

Photography, a new invention in the mid-1800s, made possible a new career during the American Civil War--photojournalism. Keep reading to see how it came to be and who actually took all those pictures.

Updated from my HISTORICALLY YOURS columns which appeared in the Boonville Daily News on September 12, 2008, and June 26, 2009.

Mathew Brady

Mathew Brady is known as the father of photojournalism, but not all historians agree that he was the best photojournalist of the 19th century.

Born in Warren County, New York, Brady worked his way up from a clerk in a department store to his own manufacturing business making jewelry cases. He spent his spare time with Samuel F. B. Morse learning all he could about Morse's new invention called photography. Brady was fascinated with it, and considered photography an art form.

In the mid-1840s, Brady opened his first portrait studio in New York City. There he trained and hired many of the men who would become the nation's best photographers of the 19th century. By 1856, Brady had moved his studio to Washington, DC, so he could be near the nation's leaders and foreign dignitaries.

"From the first, I regarded myself as under obligation to my country to preserve the faces of its historic men and mothers."

With the exception of William Harrison who died within a month of taking office, Brady's collection of Presidents extended from John Quincey Adams to William McKinley.

Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner was born on October 17, 1821, in Scotland. Influenced by the Church of Scotland and the work of Robert Owen, Gardner and his brother James went to the US in 1850 to establish a similar community in Iowa, but Alexander didn't stay. Instead, he returned to Scotland to raise more money. In 1851, he bought the Glasgow Sentinel and, under his leadership as owner/editor, promptly turned it into the second largest newspaper in the city.

That same year, Gardner visited "The Great Exhibition" in London where some of Mathew Brady's photographs were on display. Already interested in chemistry and science, Gardner began experimenting with photography.

Gardner, along with his mother, wife, and two children, moved to the US in 1856. They stayed in New York City when they discovered that many in the Iowa community Gardner had help start had died or were dying of tuberculosis.

Looking up Brady, Gardner was hired and working in Brady's Studios before the year was out. An expert in the new collodion (wet-plate process), which was replacing the daguerreotype, Gardner specialized in large prints (17x20) known as Imperial photographs. Depending on the amount of retouching required with India ink, they brought between $50 to $750

Brady and Gardner

By the time Gardner began working for Brady, Brady's eyesight had begun to fail. Gardner took on more and more responsibilities until, in 1858, Brady made him manager of the Washington studio. It was Gardner, not Brady, who trained most of the professional photographers after 1858.

In 1861, demand for portraits increased because soldiers wanted their pictures taken in uniform before leaving for the front. Gardner was soon one of the top portrait photographers in Washington.


History has established that Brady was at Bull Run along with Alfred Waud who was working for "Harper's Weekly." The battle was a loss for the Union and Brady was almost captured. But history has also estimated that Brady took very few of the photographs he took credit for during the Civil War.

At the beginning of the war, however, Brady organized a group of about twenty professional photographers, equipped each with a traveling darkroom, and sent them out to capture the horrors of war on film. It isn't clear whether Brady was at Bull Run to take pictures or if he was at Bull Run and got the idea from the experience. (Later Gardner claimed the idea to photograph the war had been his idea.)

Many of the most talented photographers of the day left Brady Studios to either work for Gardner after he started his studio or to start their own studios when Brady refused to share credit with them--men like Timothy O'Sullivan, Egbert Fox, George Barnard, William Pywell, and James Gibson to name just a few.


Some confirmed photos by Gardner include the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Siege of Petersburg.

After the war, Gardner documented Lincoln's funeral. He also photographed the conspirators after their arrest. And, he was the only photographer allowed at Washington Penitentiary on July 7, 1865, for the execution of George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt. A few months later, Gardner added Henry Wirz's execution to his historic collection. Wirz had been the commandant of Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

The following year, Gardner published "Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War" in two volumes. It was the first published collection of Civil War photographs, and for many years, it was the only such collection.

After the war

After the war, Gardner was appointed the official photographer of the Union Pacific Railroad to document the building of the railroad across Kansas. He also photographed Native Americans as he came in contact with them.

Gardner gave up photography in 1871 to start an insurance company.

Gardner and Brady

Alexander Gardner died at his home in Washington, DC, on December 10, 1882, and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery.

Mathew Brady died in New York City on January 15, 1896.


Alexander Gardner, Civil War, Mathew B Brady, Photojournalism

Meet the author

author avatar Annie69
History column appears weekly in local newspaper. Also news, human interest, and pictures. My fiction and poems have appeared in literary anthologies and I've written 3 novels

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