Theater of War

From daguerreotypes to digital.
Oct. 30 1997 3:30 AM

Theater of War

The real story behind Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs.

"Mathew Brady's Portraits: Images as History, Photography as Art"
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Sept. 26, 1997-Jan. 4, 1998

Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Jan. 24-April 12, 1998

International Center for Photography, New York City
May 1-July 19, 1998

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But for Brady himself, war never quite lost its theatricality. Unlike his cold-eyed assistants, he preferred to visit the battlefield after the corpses had been cleared away. There he would stand, his back turned to us like the contemplative artist figure in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and reflect on the glory and folly of mankind. Mathew Brady died in 1896. Elusive till the end, he was scheduled to lecture, two weeks later, on his life and work as a war photographer--with slides and patriotic music--at Carnegie Hall.

Christopher Benfey is a regular contributor to Slate. He teaches literature at Mount Holyoke College.