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15 Facts About George Brainerd

1. Brainerd was born in 1845 in Haddam Neck, Connecticut. In 1846 his family moved to Brooklyn, New York.

2. Beginning at age 13 in 1858, he experimented with building crude cameras from lenses of opera glasses and cigar boxes.

George Brainerd (left) having lunch with a friend in 1875 on the shore in Great Neck, Long Island. You might notice that there's some blurriness on their faces. The exposure time of the camera was likely less than a second, much better than the older wet collodion process that would take several minutes to capture one shot, though not quite fast enough yet to capture motion. (Photo Credit: George Bradford Brainerd)

3. He was regarded as a pioneer of amateur photography.

4. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper referred to him as the "father of instantaneous photography". As early as 1876, he succeeded in creating his own handheld or "slide box" camera. This replaced the "wet plate" camera that took several minutes to capture one photograph.

Here are two of the remaining drawings showing Brainerd's creations, including a "detective camera" that was disguised as a book. The name "Levison" on the spine of the book was his friend and colleague, Wallace Goold Levison.

5. He lived at 23 Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, likely in a different building than the one there today. Across the street today is the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From 1874-1876, he worked at 219 Montague Street in a building that no longer exists. And in 1883, he worked at 37 Municipal Building.

6. Historical records identify his professional titles over the years as "deputy purveyor", "civil engineer" and "surveyor".

7. His name is sometimes spelled "Brainard" in historical documents, though the correct spelling is "Brainerd". This is verified in a book about the genealogy of the Brainerd family.

8. In addition to photography, he was skilled in botany, chemistry, mineralogy and taxidermy.

9. He had a working knowledge of 12 languages.

10. He took approximately 2,500 photographs in his life, not including the 2,500 other exposures made while photographing for medical purposes. More on that in #11 below.

11. He made major contributions to the field of laryngeal photography. He and his doctor (and friend) Thomas Rushmore French made over 2,500 unsuccessful photographs of the human larynx before attaining any real success. "Use of a wide aperature combination to flatten the field and increase the sharpness of the image" helped them get the results they were looking for. To do this, Brainerd built a special camera that was regarded in 1883 as "invaluable and ingenious" by the American Laryngological Association.

These drawings are the only known remnants of what Brainerd's laryngeal camera looked like.

12. He photographed a well-dressed African-American family vacationing at Coney Island. Here's a quote from Julie C. Moffat's thesis on George Brainerd's life:

"Considering Brooklyn's history of racial acrimony, the mere presence of a black family at Coney Island was a rare event. Although people of their race were known for meticulous cleanliness both personally and at home, they received little respect. Brainerd's decision to photograph them is unique. His picture documents a well-dressed mother and father enjoying the luxury of a picnic lunch with their three children. Brainerd photographed this family exactly the same way he captured other families."

Lunch at Coney Island in the 1880s. (Photo Credit: George Bradford Brainerd)

13. In addition to the city of New York, he documented rural life throughout towns in Long Island and Connecticut. Many of the images can be viewed on the Brooklyn Museum website.

14. His work in the 1880s can best be understood in the context of three pictorial traditions: depictions of the poor, imagery of "street criers" and urban picturesque street views.

15. George Brainerd died on April 13, 1887 at 12:00pm in Brooklyn. He is buried in Haddam, Connecticut. He suffered from an acute throat infection in the mid-1880s, and had a brain tumor which led to a stroke and paralysis. Smoking and frequent exposure to toxic photography chemicals likely contributed to his tumor.

Have you checked out the images yet? Or how about the video? If you're able to share the video on Twitter, feel free to include the hashtag #remembergeorge.

 

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Sources
1: Lucy Abigail Brainerd, "The Genealogy of the Brainard-Brainerd Family in America", 1649-1908 (Hartford: Hartford Press, 1908).
2: Brooklyn Daily Eagle (June 23, 1887).
3: Henry W.B. Howard, "The History of the City of Brooklyn From Its Settlement to the Present Time".
4: Brooklyn Daily Eagle (September 27, 1891).
5: Brooklyn City Directory.
6: Brooklyn City Directory.
7: Lucy Abigail Brainerd, "The Genealogy of the Brainard-Brainerd Family in America", 1649-1908 (Hartford: Hartford Press, 1908): 95.
8: Brooklyn Daily Eagle (June 23, 1887).
9: Wallace Goold Levison, "Unpublished Manuscript and Notes For A History of the Brooklyn Institute" (The Brooklyn Museum Archives, c. 1919).
10: Julie C. Moffat, The City College of New York.
11: Thomas Rushmore French, "On Photography the Larynx" (1883).
12: Julie C. Moffat, The City College of New York.
13: Julie C. Moffat, The City College of New York.
14: Julie C. Moffat, The City College of New York.
15: Brooklyn Daily Eagle (June 23, 1887).
All of George Bradford Brainerd's images can be viewed in their full sizes on the Brooklyn Museum website. Special thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library, Tracie Davis and others with the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Public Library, composer Adi Goldstein and Julie C. Moffat for their contributions to this project. Credit for the image at the very top of this page goes to George Bradford Brainerd.