How Soon It May Be Too Late


Death was early American photography’s killer app. Since the first pictures required long exposures, it was convenient to have a subject that held still. There was a psychological angle as well. A 19th-­century photographer reported that when he visited a town in upstate New York, all the residents welcomed him except the blacksmith, who at first reviled him as a swindler. But then the blacksmith’s son drowned — and the blacksmith came begging for an image of the boy. The tale is retold by Robert Wilson, the editor of The American Scholar, in “Mathew Brady,” his patient and painstaking new biography of the portraitist and Civil War photographer. Brady wasn’t one to overlook a sales tool. “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late,” he warned in an 1856 ad that ran in The New York Daily Tribune, advising readers to come sit for a portrait while they still could. When the Civil War began in 1861, thousands of new soldiers and their families became acutely aware that it might soon be too late. They were willing to pay a dollar apiece for tintypes, and Wilson reports that at Brady’s Washington studio, “the wait was sometimes hours long.”

more from Caleb Crain at the NY Times here.