Matthew Brady was born in Warren County, in about 1823 (the exact place and year is not known). As a young man Brady moved to New York City and became a jewel-case manufacturer. Soon afterwards Brady met the inventor Samuel Morse who taught him about the daguerreotype process. In 1843 Brady began making special cases for daguerreotypes and the following year opened the Daguerreotype Miniature Gallery in New York.
In 1844 Brady opened a gallery in Washington and began his Illustrious Americans project. This included taking the portraits of people such as Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Horace Greeley, Edwin Stanton, Charles Sumner and William Seward. Brady sent twenty of these daguerreotypes to the Great Exhibition in London, where he won a medal for his achievements.
Brady toured Europe in 1851 but when he returned he found his failing eyesight made taking photographs very difficult. He began to rely heavily on his chief assistant, Alexander Gardner, who was a leading expert in the new collodion (wet-plate process) that was rapidly displacing the daguerreotype. Gardner specialized in making what became known as Imperial photographs. These large prints (17 by 20 inches) were very popular and Brady was able to sell them for between $50 and $750, depending on the amount of retouching with india ink that was required.
In the 1850s Brady's eyesight began to deteriorate and began to rely heavily on Alexander Gardner to run the business. In February, 1858, Gardner was put in charge of Brady's gallery in Washington. He quickly developed a reputation as an outstanding portrait photographer. He also trained the young apprentice photographer, Timothy O'Sullivan.
A supporter of the Republican Party, Brady made 35 portraits of Abraham Lincoln during the 1860 presidential campaign. After his victory Lincoln told friends that "Brady and the Copper Union speech made me President."
On the outbreak of the American Civil War there was a dramatic increase in the demand for work at Brady's studios as soldiers wanted to be photographed in uniform before going to the front-line. The following officers in the Union Army were all photographed at the Matthew Brady Studio: Nathaniel Banks, Don Carlos Buell, Ambrose Burnside, Benjamin Butler, George Custer, David Farragut, John Gibbon, Winfield Hancock, Samuel Heintzelman, Joseph Hooker, Oliver Howard, David Hunter, John Logan, Irvin McDowell, George McClellan, James McPherson, George Meade, David Porter, William Rosecrans, John Schofield, William Sherman, Daniel Sickles, George Stoneman, Edwin Sumner, George Thomas, Emory Upton, James Wadsworth and Lew Wallace.
In July, 1861 Brady and Alfred Waud, an artist working for Harper's Weekly, travelled to the front-line and witnessed Bull Run, the first major battle of the war. The battle was a disaster for the Union Army and Brady came close to being captured by the enemy.
Soon after arriving back from the front Brady decided to make a photographic record of the American Civil War. He sent Alexander Gardner, James Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan, William Pywell, George Barnard, and eighteen other men to travel throughout the country taking photographs of the war. Each one had his own travelling darkroom so that that collodion plates could be processed on the spot. This included Gardner's famous President Lincoln on the Battlefield of Antietam and Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter (1863).
Brady spent most of the time organizing his cameramen from his office in Washington. However, Brady did take photographs at Bull Run. One observer claimed that Brady at Bull Run showed "more pluck than many of the officers and soldiers who were in the fight." He photographed the retreat and another witness pointed out that Brady "has fixed the cowards beyond the possibility of a doubt."
During the American Civil War Brady spent over $100,000 in obtaining 10,000 prints. He expected the government to buy the photographs when the war ended. When the government refused to do this he was forced to sell his New York City studio and go into bankruptcy.
Congress granted Brady $25,000 in 1875 but he remained deeply in debt. Depressed by his financial situation, Matthew Brady became an alcoholic and died the charity ward of Presbyterian Hospital in New York on 15th January, 1896.