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Mark Twain on Photographs. 

14 August 2019

From DAILY HAWAIIAN HERALD, September 5, 1866 [including a few corrections of typos and inserted paragraph breaks by PG]:

We have just been reading over Sam Clement’s [sic] last letter, and in the following instance, he blunders on so much truth that we have a notion to countermand our order for him to communicate with us. Speaking of photographs he says they are all false, and feelingly remarks,

No photograph ever was good, yet, of anybody – hunger and thirst and utter wretchedness overtake the outlaw who invented it!

It transforms into desperadoes the meekest of men; depicts sinless innocence upon the pictured faces of ruffians; gives the wise man the stupid leer of a fool, and a fool an expression of more than earthly wisdom.

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.

The sun never looks through the photographic instrument that it does not print a lie.

The piece of glass it prints it 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 Soloman, a missionary, a burglar and an abject idiot, and I am neither.


4 Comments to “Mark Twain on Photographs. ”

  1. And that was *before* DMV license photos.

  2. Interesting that Twain was in Hawaii. Did he type his last letter?

    • Stephen Black, I doubt that he typed this letter. I do not think there was a typewriter available. I may be mistaken, but I believe the first manuscript he typed was for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Let’s see. Yep. Twain said so his own self in his autobiography (1904). And Tom Sawyer came out nine or ten years after this letter.

  3. Antares, thank you! I misread the ‘last letter’ of the post. I understand now; what was referred to was a ‘previous letter’ of Twain’s, not his ‘last letter’.
    I discovered this: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/travel/14twain.html

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