fig. 2: Peter E. Palmquist
photograph: Mary K. Brown, 1991

Peter E. Palmquist

Peter E. Palmquist has been an independent historian of photography since 1971. Born in Oakland, California, in 1936, he has lived most of his life in rural Humboldt County, California. His childhood education included a one-room school house with eight students; without electricity or running water. His high school graduating class totaled twenty-seven students. He taught himself photography at age twelve, and served five years as an Army photographer and twenty-eight years as a university photographer before retiring in 1989. Over the past twenty-seven years he has participated in more than one-hundred exhibitions of historical photography. His writings include more than forty books and three-hundred and twenty articles, many on women photographers. He is the founding editor of The Daguerreian Annual; past president of the National Stereoscopic Association; and founder and curator of the Women in Photography International Archive.

Editor's Note: Peter E. Palmquist passed away in January, 2003, due to an untimely accident. For further information, please see the memorial website hosted by Carl Mautz.

The following excerpt from an essay written by Myriam Weisang Misrach in 1992, gives a rich and personal account of Peter E. Palmquist's long-standing commitment to developing the Women in Photography International Archive.

Through The Lens of Time
by Myriam Weisang Misrach, 1992

One of the foremost authorities on early California photography does not, as one would imagine, officiate at a major museum or research library. Peter Palmquist lives and works quietly in Arcata, a small town on the northern California coast surrounded by massive redwoods, pounding waves and an ever-lingering fog.

Much about Palmquist is unorthodox - from his academic credentials (he has none) to his collection of more than 100,000 photographs, the bulk of which would be deemed of little value by many collectors. Still, the soft-spoken, fifty-something man is considered a leading photography expert by prominent auction houses and museums and has served as advisor on a plethora of books and exhibits. He has curated important shows and has written over two dozen books.

When Palmquist says, "Anyone researching early California photographers should consult me," he is not being immodest: he possesses historical data on more than 10,000 California photographers who worked before 1910. When a curator working on an important art exhibit on the American West called a while ago, she had some 40 questions for him. He was able to answer all but two without leaving the phone.

Palmquist became an autodidact historian largely by accident. A self-taught photographer he worked for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe, then, in 1960, returned to the area where he had grown up and became the staff photographer for Humboldt State University. In 1971 his destiny took a decisive turn during a visit to an antique store. The owner asked if he collected anything. When he said, "No," she gave him a handful of vintage prints that had been taken in the region by photographers he had never heard of. Little did she know that Palmquist's life from now on would be devoted to collecting old photographs.

Collecting, however, is only half of his devotion. Palmquist's goal is to interpret each photograph in order to understand the times in which it was taken, the person who shot it, the people who appear in it. He is interested in weaving a vast tapestry of California's past through the lens of as many photographers as possible. As he explains it, the days of pioneer photography (roughly 1850 to 1920) coincided with many of the most dramatic historical periods in California - the gold rush, the logging of giant redwoods, the settling of the West with its brutal annihilation of Indian culture and the establishment of permanent cities. Old photographs tell that story; each one is a key to the past, believes Palmquist.

fig. 3: Unknown woman photographer
c. 1906
Humboldt County, California

He studies all California photographers in a "largely uncritical way." This means that advanced amateurs may initially receive the same attention as well-known names. For him, a print worth twenty-five cents can thus be as valuable as one that may cost a thousand dollars. Anything that allows him to "perceive the fingerprints of the artist" is of importance, be it a landscape or family portrait. "Knowledge evolves out of a systematic, careful study of everyone across the field," he says. "And that really is the difference in my approach." As he sees it, the art historian "builds the pyramid from the point down." Preferring to create the broad base and then work up, Palmquist maintains, "You cannot arrive at a decent philosophical statement about the period unless you do your homework."

The way Palmquist does his own homework is colorful. He proceeds by - "encirclement," by "following trails" - the language of a hunter. Well, not quite: "I'm really a prowler," he stresses. Although he has been known to use reference librarians, he is far more likely to make his way to an open stack, say at the Library of Congress or regional historical societies, and "prowl" through every single book in a given category.

This circuitous route takes time but often bears unexpected fruit that may elude others. His recently published book, entitled Shadowcatchers, contains a directory of nearly 1,000 California women active in the field of photography before 1901. All but a handful had fallen through the cracks of time. Among them were extraordinary women like Elizabeth Fleischmann, the first x-ray photographer in California who lost her life to radiation poisoning. (Last year, Palmquist curated an exhibit of her work at the Judah L. Magnus Museum in Berkeley, California.) One reason, says Therese Heyman, who is photography curator at the Oakland Museum in California and an avid supporter of Palmquist's work, why we have so few records is because "women were not encouraged to keep their work." Because of the dearth of readily available material, it took Palmquist 19 years to complete his list.

What prompted the quest, he says, was a woman named Emma B. Freeman. While looking at somebody's family pictures (one way he has of gaining knowledge), he came across four or five romantic photographs of Indians circa 1915, which made no sense to him. The photographer's name was Emma Freeman, and his curiosity was tweaked.

fig. 4: "Allegiance" Vivian Chase (?), Hupa
by Emma B. Freeman

Over the next two years he sat in various libraries, reading "40 years' worth of daily newspapers on microfilm," until he pieced together the full story. It turns out that Freeman had been a remarkable woman who once demonstrated such bravery in photographing a naval disaster on Humboldt Bay that she was made Official Government Photographer. Her best works, however, are exquisite portraits of the Klamath and Hupa Indians. At the completion of his research in 1976, Palmquist published With Nature's Children, which contains her biography and a portfolio of her Indian photographs.

Today he is hard at work on the second volume of Shadowcatchers (1900-1920) with an additional 1,050 women. "It's a fascinating area because we have been told that women didn't really amount to anything in photography back then. But they did," observes Palmquist. When putting the finishing touches on another version of an earlier book, Camera Fiends and Kodak Girls, an anthology of essays by and about women in photography. As he puts it, "You seek, you compile, you collect, but you also have to give back what you know in the form of books, lectures, exhibits."

Palmquist has given back - and then some. He has written over 250 articles as well as 25 books and catalogues. He has organized exhibitions on Watkins, Freeman and Ericson for such venues as the International Center of Photography in New York. An Ericson exhibit, "Hier La Californie," traveled through France. His current projects - one on daguerreotypes, the other on pioneer photographers working in the West before 1865 - are sure to draw the pundits' attention.

Through it all Palmquist keeps collecting, building up his archives which he hopes will serve future historians. Having retired from his job at Humboldt State, he lives modestly off his retirement fund and the occasional lecture or consultation fee. Although he competes in a pool with Yale scholars and the like, he has chosen not to acquire academic credentials. "I would rather spend my life working on the material than running around trying to get a doctorate," he says. "I let my work speak for itself."

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© Myriam Weisang Misrach, 1992