A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.




 

Objective Subjectivity - Mathew Brady - U.S. Grant
Wednesday, December 18, 2013



 
Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor Virginia, 1864,  Mathew Brady


 For anybody who has complained that the internet has spoiled everything (and I am often one of those) there are some good things going for it. Consider how it can expose us to history in a most objective way.

There are many who say that history can never be objective. One man in particular that I remember very well was Santiago Genovés, a Spanish anthropologist who was part of  Thor Heyederdahl’s crew in three trips on a raft across the Atlantic. The third one was with a crew of men and women and the purpose was to find out if such a crew could get along in a trip of length and of isolation from the rest of the world.

Genovés in his Mexico City lecture I attended sometime in the late 60s said, “Even Herodotus was aware that no historian could be purely objective in the recounting of history. After all objectivity is a subjective invention of man.”

Of late I have taken that to heart and I have come to accept the idea that novelists can tell truths that would be hidden or distorted in non fiction which would have to be subjective no matter how closely its author would follow the dictates of good journalism.

One of the events of my childhood that has been left firmly in my memory and may have channeled me into becoming a portrait photographer so many years later was the glimpse of a book or magazine of American Heritage in the USIS Lincoln Library on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires in the beginning of the 50s. I was struck by pictures of the American Civil War in startling sharpness and in black+white. These men, officers and soldiers, stared at me from the pages of the book and I instantly realized that while they had been alive for the picture they were long dead. That comprehension of one of the elements of death (incomprehensible as death is) made look at the faces of those who walked on Calle Florida when I left. They all looked alive but I knew that some day every one of them would be like the soldiers and officers of the pictures taken by Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner and others.


As I read this wonderful book, Mathew Brady - Portraits of a Nation, which I found at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library (I had previously read the glowing review in the NY Times) I have been pleasantly shocked by information about Brady that suddenly has become revealed to me. The author Robert Wilson is a thorough researcher and he seems to have all the facts about a man that few ever really knew. Brady left few  letters and we don’t even know the exact date of his birth or the exact location.

Two interesting facts immediately caught my eye. One is that inventor/painter/artist/photographer Samuel Morse went to Paris to try to sell the idea of his telegraph. He failed but he met up with Daguerre and brought knowledge of Daguerre’s photographic process so that the Daguerreotype was just about instantly adopted in the U.S.

The second fact is that Brady (who might have been an artist apprentice to Morse) understood the problem of taking portraits in his portrait gallery when exposures were long due to the low sensitivity to light of the process and of the primitive optics of the time. He installed, like many other portrait of his contemporaries in the early 40s, a large skylight. But Brady did one better. Without knowing of the existence of UV light he was aware that light sensitive chemicals were more sensitive to UV (i.e. blue light). Brady tinted his skylight glass blue. Furthermore, Brady who had bad eyesight wore blue-tinted glasses. Might he have been an inventor of sun glasses?

I cannot remember now if one of the images I saw at that library may have been the Brady portrait of Ulysses S. Grant taken at his Cold Harbor, Virginia tent in 1864. I have always had a fondness for this photograph.

Thanks to the internet many (as in many) of those US Civil War photographs are available on line in very large resolving files. For the first time it is startling to see that the cropped picture of Grant so familiar to me is not the whole of the picture.

As I look at this picture of a man who by the time I was 15 I was reading anything I could get my hands on to the extent that I remember writing a book review on his performance at the battle of Shiloh, it seems fresher than ever and paradoxically less familiar.

I have read Grant’s memoirs a few months ago so perhaps that is the reason for thinking that the photograph shows me a man (with no distraction in either muted or lurid colour of contemporary times) whose timeless look, the clothes aren’t all that different, or that the b+w journalistic look of a newspaper photograph (NY Times Cold Harbour Journal, perhaps?) makes it indeed seem like the man is alive today.

There are those who would dream of having lunch with Dickens or share high tea with Jane Austen. I know that if I had my chance I would choose to drink heavily with Ulysses S. Grant.  His stories, as objective as a man who sent so many to their deaths would be as interesting as all the stories that Brother Hubert Koeppen, C.S.C. and Brother Francis Barrett, C.S.C. told me as history.



     

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In Favor of Uncertainty in a Perfect Digital World...



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2/28/16 - 3/6/16

3/6/16 - 3/13/16

3/13/16 - 3/20/16

3/20/16 - 3/27/16

3/27/16 - 4/3/16

4/3/16 - 4/10/16

4/10/16 - 4/17/16

4/17/16 - 4/24/16

4/24/16 - 5/1/16

5/1/16 - 5/8/16

5/8/16 - 5/15/16

5/15/16 - 5/22/16

5/22/16 - 5/29/16

5/29/16 - 6/5/16

6/5/16 - 6/12/16

6/12/16 - 6/19/16

6/19/16 - 6/26/16

6/26/16 - 7/3/16

7/3/16 - 7/10/16

7/10/16 - 7/17/16

7/17/16 - 7/24/16

7/24/16 - 7/31/16

7/31/16 - 8/7/16

8/7/16 - 8/14/16

8/14/16 - 8/21/16

8/21/16 - 8/28/16

8/28/16 - 9/4/16

9/4/16 - 9/11/16

9/11/16 - 9/18/16

9/18/16 - 9/25/16

9/25/16 - 10/2/16

10/2/16 - 10/9/16

10/9/16 - 10/16/16

10/16/16 - 10/23/16

10/23/16 - 10/30/16

10/30/16 - 11/6/16

11/6/16 - 11/13/16

11/13/16 - 11/20/16

11/20/16 - 11/27/16

11/27/16 - 12/4/16

12/4/16 - 12/11/16

12/11/16 - 12/18/16

12/18/16 - 12/25/16

12/25/16 - 1/1/17

1/1/17 - 1/8/17

1/8/17 - 1/15/17

1/15/17 - 1/22/17

1/22/17 - 1/29/17

1/29/17 - 2/5/17

2/5/17 - 2/12/17

2/12/17 - 2/19/17

2/19/17 - 2/26/17