Story by BOB DORAN
PETER PALMQUIST IS A MAN obsessed -- obsessed with learning all he can about the lives of photographers. Over the course of the last three decades, he fed his obsession and amassed a collection -- amazing in its size and uniqueness -- of around 250,000 images with extensive notes to accompany them.
Working out of his home in Arcata, Palmquist built his private archive, one that rivals the collections of public institutions. With 85,000 images by Humboldt County photographers, it is a major resource for those with an interest in local history.
But anyone interested in seeing these slices of time will have to travel to do so, at least for the immediate future. Palmquist sold all of his photos and notes to Yale University last year. Most of the material has already been shipped to New Haven, Conn., where it will be permanently archived at the university's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
It began with a handful of old photos. It was 1971 and Palmquist was browsing in a McKinleyville antique store.
"The woman who ran the place asked me what I was looking for, what I collected," he recalled. "I said, `Nothing.' She asked, `What do you do?' and I said, `I'm a photographer.' She said, `Well, surely you should collect photographs.'
"Before I left she gave me a double fistful of carte de visites, photographs by people I had never heard of, all from the Arcata-Eureka area," Palmquist said. "I was intrigued. I wanted to learn more about them."
And that seed of curiosity about the photographs and the photographers who shot them continued to grow. While learning everything he could about Humboldt County's pioneer photographers, Palmquist expanded his investigations. By the end of the century the self-taught researcher had become one of the foremost authorities in his field, an internationally respected expert not just on Humboldt's photographers but about the history of photography on the American frontier.
Carte de visites from the Humboldt County Historical Society photo
collection.At left, is Judge S. M. Buck, attorney. In the middle
is a young boy identified on the back side (right) as "J.B.
Brown's little boy,"
Palmquist's rustic home is nestled among trees not far from his former place of employment, Humboldt State University. From the outside, the building behind the house doesn't look like a world-class library. But inside floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are crammed with books on photography and volume after volume of bound notes.
Over the course of last year trucks from Yale made a regular pilgrimage to the Palmquist repository and what remains today is mostly material connected to another of his obsessions, the Women in Photography International Archive.
A few old photos in sleeves sit on a worktable. Nearby is a thick book, Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865, "the bible on the subject," he calls it. While it seems comprehensive, it's just volume one of what Palmquist projects to be a five-volume set.
Assembled with help from New York-based editor/house painter Thomas Kailbourn, the 1,216-page Pioneer Photographers tome was published last spring by Stanford University Press. In November Palmquist and Kailbourn received the Denver Public Library's Caroline Bancroft History Prize, an award given annually to the authors of non-fiction books about Western history.
As an expert on the lives of photographers, Palmquist is used to putting together biographic sketches. How does he describe himself?
"This is my 53rd year as a photographer," he begins, and then pauses. "I'm local," he says after a moment of reflection.
Local, but not native. Born in Oakland, Palmquist moved to a "side-hill shack" on Boone's Creek in the hills above Ferndale when he was 8, his father intent on a "back-to-the-land experience."
The fact that they had gravity-fed water and no electricity didn't stop him from developing an interest in photography.
"When I was about 12 I started using my mother's box camera. There was nobody in the community who did photography who could show me what to do, so I just read about it. I went to Wing's Pharmacy in town and bought chemicals mail order. By the time I was in high school, I was really into it. I became the resident expert."
After graduating from Ferndale High, he took his photo skills to the military. From 1954-59 he was stationed in Paris, home of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the military arm of NATO, a position that had him photographing generals, presidents, movie stars, princes and queens.
When his stint ended he was offered a position in Brazil, but with a wife and a new baby he thought it might not be a good idea. Instead he returned to Ferndale and found work as a census taker.
After enrolling at Humboldt State in 1960, courtesy of the GI Bill, he learned that the school's photographer had quit.
"I took the job and kept it for 23 years," he said as he quickly moves to a topic more dear to his heart: research.
Just as he taught himself the fundamentals of photography as a boy, Palmquist's entry into the world of historical research was for the most part without guidance. He has a college degree -- in ceramics, not history.
"I use methods that would not be taught in universities, but they're effective. I find stuff no one else can find because I don't know any better. When you gather material endlessly, you gain a lot of insight," he said.
Palmquist pored over books looking for clues, read every census record and "most of California's newspapers and magazines through 1870 and some through the 1940s."
The Humboldt Room at HSU was a starting point, but they were just beginning to gather historic photos.
"In fact I was instrumental in bringing the Ericson plates there," he said, referring to a turn-of-the-century Arcata photographer who was the subject of Palmquist's first book, Fine California Views: The Photographs of A.W. Ericson.
"I had met the family and helped them salvage some of the plates from an old barn," he explained.
He was already building a collection. At a glance it might have seemed unfocused since it dealt with such a broad subject: "the lives of photographers."
"I'm not passionate about collecting photos of ships, not passionate about railroads. I want to know who the photographer was," said Palmquist. "And I've profited from staying in the field. I've been the beneficiary of people who have died and given me their stuff. I have research notes from colleagues and collectors, things they left me. As you combine all this information a larger picture comes into focus, one that benefits from the work of a lot of people. I don't find every clue myself, but I accumulate them."
He shared his discoveries in countless articles for scholarly publications and historical society newsletters and put together more books. (His 63rd was "on the press" when we spoke last month.) And he mounted exhibitions.
In 1981, while doing research for a major project, Palmquist met George Miles, newly hired curator of the Western Americana collection at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
"Peter was working on his first big Carlton Watkins project, a book and a show that was done in conjunction with the Amon Carter Museum," said Miles in a call from Yale. "He came here to look at our things, about which he knew much more than I did. So from the first I began to learn from Peter."
When it comes to the history of the West, the Beinecke is one of the major players. You want to read the field notes from the Lewis and Clark expedition? The originals are there, along with the original field maps.
"We're clearly one of the best in the world when it comes to the history of the West up until about World War I. Once you get past that we can't begin to hold a candle to the sorts of collections that state universities and state historical societies have built up for their particular regions."
When Miles learned that Palmquist's collection might be for sale he was interested. When he talked with Peter and learned just how extensive it was, he became very interested.
Why is it significant?
"It is probably the largest private collection of 19th century Western photography ever built," said Miles. "I don't know of a larger one. There are people out there who pursue this with a passion, and there are interesting private collections that come up, But Peter's is on another order of magnitude.
"There's more to it than that," Miles continued. "It also is extraordinarily thorough in certain areas. Peter was simply comprehensive in collecting Northern California work, particularly Humboldt County, from the earliest days of photography through to the mid-20th century. Peter went out of his way to find the work of every major photographer and to be able to document not just the history of the region but the history of photography as it was practiced.
"I would also say that part of what interested me about Peter's collection is not only the original material he collected, but all the background research that he did and compiled. The details he gathered are just staggering."
Each photo in his collection offers a small glimpse of the past. While Palmquist's intent has always been to look at history from a photographer's point of view, other historians see different things in his collection.
Among them is Matina Kilkenny, [in photo at left] research and collections manager of the Humboldt County Historical Society. "There's a story of the community that's part of each photograph, and I think that it goes beyond who took the photograph. We value them for what they can tell us about a time and a place," said Kilkenny at the society's headquarters in a Eureka Victorian converted into offices and archives.
Like many in the community, Kilkenny sees the sale of the Palmquist collection as the loss of an irreplaceable historical resource.
"The historical society has a wonderful collection, more than 20,000 photos. It's nothing compared to Peter's collection. But what I regret the most is the loss of information, explicit information about individual images," she said.
"Every picture we have tells us something about our history. We need information to interpret that history. We know more if we have the writing on the back of the photo. It might be a note that came with the photograph that says who the people were or the address of a building. That's what left with the collection.
"A good example is the picture you've seen on a poster recently with three postmen. [below right] A woman had seen the photo and thought one of the men might be a relation. She asked Peter if he had any information about it. He knew who the people were; it was information that had not been given out before. He emphasized how lucky she was to get that information because that photo was being boxed up the next day [for shipment to Yale]. I have to say that made me mad."
Palmquist is well aware of the fact that there are many in the community who were dismayed when they learned he had sold his collection to a university back east.
"I take it your story is about how this stuff has escaped Humboldt County," he said at one point in our interview. "And I'm regretful," he added.
"There are all sorts of critics who feel that the collection should stay here. If it were to remain here, who's going to have it? Let's say the Historical Society got it. They have limited staff. They have no provisions for maintaining a historical record for the stuff with their system. They might not put all the Ericson photographs together because they sort by subject matter. Suddenly they're confronted with putting all the trains in this pile and the Indians in that pile. That would destroy what I've done."
Kilkenny points out that it was Palmquist who devised the historical society's catalogue system. Was there ever a chance that the collection could have gone to the historical society?
"He never gave us any impression that he was interested in donating one photograph to this collection, much less 85,000. He's never donated a picture to us that I can think of.
"Peter is an information broker. It's that simple," Kilkenny continued. "And I don't think that people who gave photos to him and shared photos with him thought that they were selling the information that went with them; they didn't know it was going out of the area."
In his own defense Palmquist emphasizes his reputation.
"Reputation is everything. You can imagine that there are others like me in the world. Some of them can't be trusted. Those who are in the system know who can be trusted and who can't. People will give me things they wouldn't give anyone else because they trust me. I can't say I have no critics, but most of my critics are people who just don't know the circumstances, who don't understand what I'm doing."
He dismisses the idea that any local institution has the resources even to deal with the portion of the collection on Humboldt photographers.
"There are 85,000 photographs (in the Humboldt portion). Are they going to put them in archival sleeves, in archival boxes, find shelving space for them, space where the temperature and humidity are completely controlled?
"Finding the proper respectful home was essential. It's not like these are all Humboldt pictures or pictures of Nevada City or pictures of Hawaii. The point is, if you divorce them from the intellectual effort, the information I've gathered about all the relationships the photographers have one to another, you don't have a core collection. If it was dispersed it would be pointless. It would destroy it."
Did he consider selling to the Bancroft at UC Berkeley, another library with an extensive collection on Western history?
"How long would it take them to deal with my collection? It wouldn't happen in my lifetime," Palmquist replied.
"Part of Peter's concern was to try to find an institution that had the wherewithal to manage the collection effectively," said Miles, Yale's Beinecke curator. "I would respectfully say that there are only a handful of institutions in the country with the resources to house the collection, appropriately maintain it and handle readers' needs over a period of time. I'm fortunate to work at one of them."
While Miles would not say how much Yale paid for Palmquist's collection, he emphasized that the photographs could easily have been sold for two or three times as much money if it had been broken up and sold over a period of time.
"The point is, it wasn't about the money; it was really about preserving the collection for scholarship," said Miles. And he contends Yale is in the forefront when it comes to studying the West.
"One of the constant issues for those of us collecting Western history here at Yale is, `Why are you taking that stuff east?' It's a question we hear over and over again."
His response: The history of the Far West is an important part of the history of America. Yale has demonstrated its commitment to the field by producing many leading scholars who go on to teach at colleges and universities in Western states.
Palmquist said he chose the Beinecke in part because it's "on the corridor for students doing research."
"That's something that's lacking here. I'm next to a university, but the students never see this place. They don't realize that cutting edge stuff is being done right in their back yard. No one here understands it."
What happens to the collection now that it's at Yale? Palmquist has suggested that with digital technology it will soon be possible for people in Humboldt County to view the collection online.
"We're making efforts in the digital field to put our collections up on the Web where they can be more accessible for students, scholars and interested amateurs from around the world who can't ever get to Beinecke," said Miles.
"But," he added, "I don't want to make rash promises." Because of the vastness of the Palmquist archives and because of the broad range of collections at Yale, it will be some time before the collection is digitized.
"The Beinecke Library runs from papyrus right through to modern literary manuscripts and is extraordinarily strong in many fields. The communities of users around the world are all interested in how digital technology will make their life easier.
"We're all trying to figure out what works best and how to make it happen, but we do have a commitment to broad access. We collect material so it can be used, not to lock it up."
Despite the sale, Palmquist's research hasn't stopped. He's still hard at work studying women photographers, still gathering photos and filling files with notes.
He rests easier now that his life's work is secure "in one of the finest rare book libraries in the world."
"The collection will live there in perpetuity. The facility itself is like a cathedral with translucent marble panels so you have this beautiful soft light. It's almost a mystical experience to walk in," Palmquist said.
The way he sees it, the photos he gathered now have a secure place in history.
"I'm simply a curator. These things pass through my hands, but they belong to society."
© Copyright 2002, North Coast Journal, Inc.