Basil Edwin Clemons, photographer, the firstborn of seventeen children of Lemuel Joseph and Sarah Alice (Clemmons) Clemmons was born in Lauderdale County, Alabama, on July 22, 1887. His parents were cousins. He attended grammar school in Alabama until his father, a farmer, moved the family to Ridgeway, Texas. At age sixteen, in 1903, Basil left Texas and journeyed to California. He was in San Francisco in 1906, when that city experienced its devastating earthquake. Clemons, who was well-read, became a self-taught photographer in Hollywood at the beginning of the movie era. Later, he trooped with the Tom Mix Wild West Show. In 1909 he returned to East Texas to visit his family before departing for Alaska, where he recorded the growth surrounding the gold discoveries in the Yukon River area. He introduced motion pictures to Alaskan residents by making and developing the first movies shown there. Clemons was responsible for bringing the first airplane into the snowy region and then preserved the sights of the frozen land with the first aerial photographs taken in Alaska. He was snow-blinded, however, and his eyesight was affected for the rest of his life. In Alaska Clemons became a Methodist. He later confided to his mother that he was a "sprinkled Methodist" because immersion in ice water would have frozen him to death. He joined the United States Army and trained at Fort Liscom, Alaska. In 1918 he was discharged as a private in the Ninth Company, 166th Depot Brigade. He eventually moved to Seattle, Washington, where he opened a photography studio.
In 1919, while traveling with a circus, he returned to Texas. There he received word that his studio had burned, but instead of returning to Seattle he headed west to Breckenridge. He chronicled on film every aspect of life in the small town as it boomed from oil production in 1920. When the oilfields declined, he remained and continued to photograph everyday happenings. His photographs included not only oil-derrick scenes, weddings, downtown display windows, rodeos, parades, and portraits of prominent citizens, but also funeral processions, Ku Klux Klan rallies, lakeside picnics, and the entire public school student body. His developing studio was his unusual home, an iron-wheeled gypsy wagon, ten feet long and six feet wide, which had been a cookshack used on a ranch. To develop photographs, he never measured the chemicals poured from jars. By tasting the finger he used to stir the mixture, he determined the correct proportions. He developed black-and-white and sepia-toned photographs. He also produced pictures on fabric and did hand-colored tinted prints. His skill was so perfected that he formulated a process for color developing before the Eastman Kodak Company. When he received a letter from Kodak in 1936, offering a fabulous amount, plus royalties, for his technique, Clemons had his teen-aged helper, Frank Pellizzari, Jr., type a refusal to the offer with the remark that the Kodak chemists should "figure it out for themselves." The trademark of his work was marking negatives with a fine pen and India ink so that the developed prints bore the subject label, date, and his signature in white lettering.
Clemons, a lifelong bachelor, believed in a simplified approach to living. As an eccentric, he did not follow conventional standards in his choice of habitat, dress, or diet. He wore jodhpurs and knee-high laced boots and traveled to photography sites in a stripped-down Model-T Ford. He declined social invitations, yet he always welcomed company and generously offered to serve visitors mulligan stew and bannock, a pancake-thin bread. From ground mesquite beans he made a weak tea-like beverage. At Thanksgiving he invited the entire community to share a harvest feast from his vast garden. His political affiliation is unknown. He belonged to both the American Legion and the Moose Lodge. In the Yukon he had served as secretary of the Alaska Kennel Club, similar to a chamber of commerce. Plagued by asthma and cataracts, Clemons gave up photography in 1949. He continued to live in his wagon, set on a lot where a car-wrecking yard had once been. Although his eyesight had failed, he still possessed a keen wit and sharp memory. With a chuckle he called his abode the "Atheneum of Breckenridge." He recognized visitors by the sound of their footsteps. His neighbors, the Pellizzaris, helped take care of him by cashing pension checks, buying groceries, and occasionally cooking his meals. Frail from suffering severe asthma attacks, Clemons died on June 22, 1964, in Breckenridge. He is buried beside his parents in Hopkins County, Texas. His Alaskan photographs are located at the University of Alaska Library-Fairbanks and in Juneau at the Alaska State Library. Pictures taken of Breckenridge and the surrounding area, dated from 1920 to 1949, were secured in 1985 by the Special Collections Division of the University of Texas at Arlington Libraries. In 1994 the Swenson Memorial Museum in Breckenridge acquired a similar group of his photos and organized the Basil Clemons Photograph Collection of Stephens County.
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Abilene Reporter-News, June 24, 1964. Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1940. Fort Worth Press, December 13, 1951. Betty Elliott Hanna, "Basil Clemons, Eccentric Photographer," Frontier Times, December-January 1975–76. Betty E. Hanna, Doodle Bugs and Cactus Berries: A Historical Sketch of Stephens County (Quanah, Texas: Nortex, 1975). Shirley Rodnitzky, "A Guide to the Basil Clemons Photograph Collection," Special Collections Division, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, 1988. Stephens County (Breckenridge, Texas: Stephens County Sesquicentennial Committee, 1987).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Jean Ann (Pellizzari) Credicott,
“Clemons, Basil Edwin,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed July 01, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
August 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
September 26, 2019