He was born in 1823 in upstate New York. As a teenager, he studied art with the painter, William Page, then went on to the National Academy of Design in New York. Following that, he studied with the painter and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse. At the age of 21, he opened a studio on the fashionable lower end of Broadway. He was so successful that five years later, he was able to open a branch in Washington, D.C. where he depicted not just the rich but the famous politicians of his day too. His portraits are marked by a strong sensitivity for the personality of his sitter as well as a feeling for the mood of his subject. Today, there's hardly a single individual who hasn't seen his work hundreds of times. All you have to do is open your wallet and pull out a five-dollar bill. The face of Lincoln you see is an etching based upon the work of Matthew B. Brady.
Although Samuel F. B. Morse is best known for inventing the telegraph, and for his amazing painting depicting the The Old House of Representatives in session, this "Renaissance man" was also one of the first Americans to take up the science of photography. It was from him that Matthew Brady learned the daguerreotype process that allowed him to forsake his brushes and begin painting with light. At a time when photography wasn't even yet considered an art, Brady brought an artist's sensitivity for his subject to his work, posing his figures and composing each of his portrait photos just as if he were painting his model in oils. His flair for the dramatic and his instinctive feeling for the considerable technical limitations of the camera and chemicals of his day came together in creating work that, in print, is hard to tell from black and white photos of paintings. His 1845 daguerreotype of his mentor, Samuel F. B. Morse, is a prime example of this.
Brady was in his forties when the Civil War erupted. Packing up his cameras, fragile glass plates, and chemicals into what were essentially cumbersome darkrooms on wheels, he joined the army, following rather the fighting, recording the aftermath of battles such as Antietam, with such never before seen realism that he forever dispelled any romantic notion that war is in any way noble or heroic. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in seeing Brady's photos of just a few of the 5,000 killed and 18,000 wounded in a single day of fighting, commented he had the urge to bury the photos along with the dead. Brady trained dozens of assistants to take his portable darkrooms to where the fighting was, and though exposure times were still much too long to shoot actual battles (five to ten seconds usually, depending on the prevailing light), the graphic pictures of the killing efficiency of "modern" warfare served to erase the innocence of an entire nation. After the war, Brady began photographing the urban scene. His depictions of a bustling New York City predated the Ashcan School paintings by a whole generation. Late in life, a series of bad investments caused him to lose his studio. He worked for other photographers for a time before eventually dying in a charity ward of a New York City hospital. In 1896, he was buried in Washington, D.C. in an unmarked grave.