Mark Twain: Celebrity photography’s first superstar was also one of its most outspoken critics


posted Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 8:34 PM EST


"The piece of glass it (the photo) prints on is well named a 'negative' -- a contradiction -- a misrepresentation -- a falsehood. I speak feeling of this matter, because by turns the instrument has represented me to be a lunatic, a Solomon, a missionary, a burglar and an abject idiot, and I am neither."
-- Letter from Mark Twain to the Sacramento Daily Union,
July 1, 1866

He was one of the most photographed individuals of the 19th century. With his trademark droopy moustache and big cigar, he was the first media darling, but also one of its earliest critics. The camera loved him, although he rarely returned the admiration. He was Mark Twain and he was as much a creation of celebrity as Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. 


Mark Twain playing pool with Louise Paine, circa 1907-1910 (left),
and Twain with actor John T. Sellers, circa 1874 (right).

A Celebrity is Born
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on a cold November night in Missouri in 1835. It was a night that Halley's Comet was illuminating the Midwestern skies, and his mother took it as a good sign that her small and frail child would survive. Just a few years after Clemens' birth, photography was born, too, and their paths were to become inextricably intertwined.

The first image we have of Clemens is a daguerreotype taken in 1850 when he was a 15-year-old cabin boy. Sixty years later, at the time of his death, he had been photographed thousands of times and by almost every important photographer of the 19th century, from Matthew Brady to Alvin Langdon Coburn -- who made an early color image of the great man. To keep this in perspective, most of Clemens' contemporaries, including famous writers such Charles Dickens, were only photographed a handful of times.


Twain at age 15, photo attributed to GH Jones, circa 1850, courtesy of Bancroft Library Pictorial Collections (left), and much older at the House of Lords, photo taken by Sir Benjamin Stone, circa 1907 (right).

Sam Clemens and Mark Twain changed that. He was the first celebrity, and like Lady Gaga and Madonna after him, he took control of his image. With his family, he starred in dozens of the new photographic spreads that filled the pages of magazines like Harper's Illustrated and the Ladies Home Journal. Commonplace today, these picture stories were a revelation to 19th century audiences. In any number of puff pieces, breathless readers could see with their own eyes for the first time actual photographs of a celebrity. Here was Twain relaxing with a cigar, playing pool or just sitting on the porch with his family.


The Clemens family sitting on the porch, circa 1885.

As Solemn As an Owl
Mark Twain was a creation of Samuel Clemens as much as Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. Clemens knew how to use the new media of his day.  
"If a man tries to look serious when he sits for his picture the photograph makes him look as solemn as an owl; if he smiles, the photograph smirks repulsively; if he tries to look pleasant, the photograph looks silly; if he makes the fatal mistake of attempting to seem pensive, the camera will surely write him down as an ass."
-- Letter from Mark Twain to the Daily Hawaiian Herald, Sept. 5, 1866


Twain in the laboratories of Nikola Tesla, circa 1894 (left), and at home with his daughter Clara, circa 1907-1910 (right).

Identity fascinated Clemens; it's a theme that turns up repeatedly in his work. Consider his "The Prince and the Pauper," where the simple exchange of clothing is enough to turn a prince into a pauper and vice versa.
Clemens was perhaps the first person to manufacture a "trademark" identity specifically for photography. From the white suit and walrus moustache, to the explosion of frizzy hair and his ever-present cigar, these elements are easily recognizable, even in badly printed tabloids.
Over time, the identity of Mark Twain overwhelmed the real Sam Clemens, as seen by the newspaper caption to a photograph of him en route in England.


The façade served a purpose. Behind his costumed character, Clemens could be the writer in the white suit, patrician and elegant, a friend of the powerful. Whereas in real life, Clemens was bankrupt and struggled with fits of depression.
The Incorruptible Kodak
Despite his stated sarcasm, Clemens retained faith in the power of the "truth" of photography. In "King Leopold's Soliloquy" he has the Belgian king who had long hidden his atrocities in the Belgian Congo -- the horror at the heart of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" -- lament that despite his best efforts to hide his treachery and murders, "Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible Kodak -- and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn't bribe."

The tale of Samuel Langhorne Clemens' celebrity also ends in a way befitting a superstar. In 1909, he told a reporter, "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'"
On April 21, 1910, the day after the Comet made its closest approach to Earth, true to his word Samuel Clemens died. Luckily, he left Mark Twain to carry on in the guise of comics and social critics, from Groucho Marx's Captain Spaulding to Stephen Colbert's Stephen Colbert.


A rare photo of Mark Twain in color (early Autochrome) by Alvin Langdon Coburn, circa 1909.