April 23, 2002


Brady's portrait of Grant : On a June afternoon in 1864, Mathew Brady invented candid portrait photography -- and changed our vision of American masculinity. (Jeff Galipeaux, April 22, 2002, Salon)
The bulk of the finest, most resonant images of the Civil War were taken by Mathew Brady and his subordinates. These images included a hasty portrait of a reluctant subject that would prove to be Brady's masterpiece and stand as one of the images essential to reshaping our national identity after the war.

In June of 1864, along with nearly 2,000 images of soldiers, fortifications, battlefields and cannons, Brady took the first important casual photograph, the first permanently recorded awkward image of an important man: The image of Ulysses S. Grant. Brady captured the image at the forward command center in City Point, Va. It is a landmark of psychological portraiture, paparazzidom and the creation of a public image -- all at once.

The hat is slightly askew. The brow is scrunched. There is that frown. There is the awkward placing of Grant's feet, the angle of his hip; the left hand clenched in a fist, the fingers of the right brushing against a tree. It's all wrong for the portrait of an illustrious leader in 1864, but disarmingly natural by today's standards. [...]

Not only do the details and composition of the City Point portrait provide a shining example of how far the fledgling art form of photography had advanced in a short time -- Brady had only perfected the wet plate colloidal process, which allowed him to make permanent negatives, in the 1850s -- it also constitutes a stunning piece of social propaganda, directed both at the Southern gentry and the Northern military establishment. In a nutshell: Death to the "gallant South," death to the sabers and the spit polish, death to the whole foppish military aesthetic.

The iconography of the photograph is as close as we can get to reading Grant's mind. It's easy to imagine an informal order accompanying the photograph: "We'll have no more glamour in the army. Leave effete uniforms to the British. No more ridiculous plumed and braided getups that make us look like lampshades. And no more trying to make the ladies swoon. None of that. Look at my face. War is not fun or particularly noble. If your hometown wants to memorialize you in bronze when this is all over, that's different. But for the images Mr. Brady and his associates are recording, we need to look like stern, tenacious, quiet Americans."

This is a cranky, get-it-over-with photograph. It doesn't lend itself to cultish adoration, as do so many of the portraits of Grant's Confederate counterpart and chief rival, Robert E. Lee. Lee was photogenic in a haunted, soulful way, but he never quite escaped the mawkish look of an actor about to walk onstage as Hamlet's father.

Grant may be plain, but he is most certainly American. To know Lee only from his portraits with the same sense of familiarity would be impossible. After you study a few images of Lee, his dignity starts to get tedious. Study a few dozen more entries into his visual history, and he no longer seems quite human. Lee is like an ethereal resident existing in the minds of a small number of well-born, proud families adept at self-delusion. He's an icon of the aristocratic South, a champion of a state of perpetual dishonesty. Forget those quaint lines about loyalty to Virginia -- loyalty to Virginia under those circumstances required a frightening suspension of disbelief, and an out-and-out denial of modernity. But yes indeed, Lee gave a good still.

In his appearance on Booknotes the other night, Gordon S. Wood talked about how lucky we were that George Washington was the kind of man that he was, because almost unique among military men up to that time, he expected no political power in exchange for his service to his country. He also said that, paradoxically, that gave Washington tremendous power, because the men around him knew that he could be trusted with that power.

These days, we've an unfortunate image of Grant as a drunkard, a corrupt president and a cloddish general, who pales in comparison to his contemporaries--Lee as a general; Lincoln as a president. There's an excellent biography of Grant by Geoffrey Perret, that serves as a corrective to this view. The Grant who emerges from its pages is one of the more decent and self-effacing men ever to become president and it's easy to see why his president and his countrymen trusted him with power.

The more you know about Grant the more you like him. After reading Mr. Galipeaux's essay, I have to figure out how to get the wife to let me hang this photograph somewhere in the house.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2002 9:30 AM
Comments for this post are closed.