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Monthly Masters DiscussionMonthly Masters’ Discussion - June 2020 - Mathew Brady’s Portrait of Ulysses Grant

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Monthly Masters’ Discussion - June 2020 - Mathew Brady’s Portrait of Ulysses Grant

Post by minniev »


This month we will consider an historic photograph by Mathew Brady, one of the earliest photographers in America. Brady studied under inventor Samuel Morse, who pioneered the daguerreotype  technique. Brady opened his studio in 1844 and photographed presidents and other well-known Americans there but he is most famous for his work during the Civil War, using a mobile studio and darkroom, employing and training numerous assistants who became the first cadre of wartime photographic journalists.

This portrait of General Ulysses Grant at the forward command center in City Point, VA in 1864 is considered Brady’s masterpiece. It was a hasty capture but would stand as one of the images essential to reshaping our national identity after the war. It was also the first important casual portrait of an important personage. The traditional method of photographic portraiture was studio based, carefully staged with impeccable grooming and dress, using poses designed to create an idealized image. With the Grant image, Brady created the genre of casual photographic portraiture.

As you study this image, here are some questions to spur your thinking. Consider any of them you wish, review any of the linked resource information, and share your own impressions of this portrait.

Questions for Consideration:

1. What is your overall opinion of this image? The composition? The pose? The use of light? Is this an image you would want in your own historic collection? Why or why not?
2. I’ve included both the finished image and the original plate. Would you have cropped differently? Posed differently? If different, what would you have chosen to do?
3. What does the image tell us about the subject? What do you make of Grant’s mood? Personality? How is this image different from the usual formal portraits we see of military and political figures of the late 1800s? In what ways does this portrait seem “modern”?
4. This is considered the first casual portrait, and a foreshadowing of well known casual portraits of famous figures like Roosevelt, Churchill, Kennedy in later years. There have even been suggestions that this image was the gateway to “decisive moment” street photography like Cartier-Bresson’s. What are your thoughts? Briefly discuss.
5. Do you prefer casual style portraits that include environment, or more formal portraits which isolate/focus on the subject? In your own photographic work, do you prefer to make informal portraits or studio type portraits where you control the variables? Explain. And if you would, share one of your own portraits that illustrate your preference.

Links For Further Study

https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2 ... ef=opinion
https://medium.com/photographs-words/ob ... e083c40d84
https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biog ... thew-brady
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/c ... ys-vision/
BONUS LINK if you got this far: the first photographic composite of a portrait against a different background with added compositional elements! https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-histor ... es-s-grant
Fair use https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3995287533
Fair use https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3995287533
Fair use https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mathew_B._Brady_-_Ulysses_S._Grant_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Fair use https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mathew_B._Brady_-_Ulysses_S._Grant_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
"God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes" - Dewitt Jones

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