How The Arcata Union’s Photo Archives Wound Up In Connecticut – March 21, 2012
Note: This story was originally published July 8, 2003. – Ed.
By Emily Gurnon
Special to the Eye
Humboldt native Peter Palmquist, the nationally known photo collector and historian, amassed a quarter of a million images in what he called his “life estate.” Shortly before a hit-and-run accident that killed him in January, he sold the collection to Yale University.
Among the images were some 50,000 photos and negatives from the old Arcata Union newspaper, which ceased publication in 1995.
Critics have said Palmquist should have found a way to keep the collection in Humboldt County, or at least California. Palmquist said there were no good local alternatives.
What happened with the Arcata Union’s photos? And will Arcata residents ever be able to see them again?
The story of the Union’s photos begins in 1987, when then-publisher Curt Tuck directed editor Judy Hodgson to “dump them in the trash,” she said.
The photos and negatives, illustrating the history of Arcata and its people, were being stored in a bank of file cabinets – six or eight drawers’ worth, Hodgson said.
“He was just that kind of a guy. He threw everything out,” she said. “He didn’t believe in keeping records or anything.”
Hodgson was “concerned with this history being lost,” so she and other staffers decided the logical person to give it to would be Palmquist.
“We were trying to save the collection, and since he was known to be a collector of historical photos, we thought that was our best bet.” There was no discussion about what Palmquist might do with them; no money changed hands, and no agreements were signed that she knew of, Hodgson said. The question of whether he might someday give them away to someone else “never came up,” she said.
Born in Oakland in 1936, Palmquist grew up in Ferndale and took up photography when he was 12. After enlisting in the U.S. Army, he was stationed in Paris as a photographer, and went on to become Humboldt State’s university photographer for 28 years.
In 1971, he began collecting photos and researching the people who took them. It was the photographers, rather than the images themselves, that really interested him.
At first his collection was haphazard; he’d find things, or people would turn old images over to him, and he took everything. In time, he became more discriminating; one aspect of his collection focused on Humboldt County and its photographers. Shortly before his death, he was concentrating on the history of women in photography.
Palmquist consulted for many museums and libraries, such as the Getty Museum, the Huntington Library and U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. He wrote more than 60 books and monographs, including A Collector’s Obsession: Photographs of Humboldt County, California, from the Peter E. Palmquist Collection; and Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865.
Palmquist met George Miles in 1981. Miles is the curator of Yale University’s collection of Western Americana at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. He eventually came to know Palmquist and develop great respect for him.
Two decades later, “They called me and said, whatever it takes, we’re interested in having your collection,” Palmquist said in a taped presentation included in a recent edition of KEET-TV’s Living Biographies.
“I know of no private collector who amassed a collection as broad as Peter’s,” Miles said. It documents the lives and work of thousands of photographers from the 1840s to the 1990s; the variety of photographic formats used since the invention of photography; and the many ways in which photography was used – from personal mementos to industrial promotion to journalism, he said.
The Arcata Union portion of the materials Yale received consists of 12 boxes of photos and negatives, about 50,000 altogether according to Palmquist’s “rough count,” Miles told the Eye. The boxes, which measure 8-1/2 by 11 inches wide and 3 inches deep, are generally arranged chronologically, with two boxes of unsorted photos labeled 1954 to 1972, nine boxes from 1968 to 1977 and one box of sports photos from 1969 to 1984.
“I don’t think there are 25,000 prints in that batch, but probably many, many more negatives,” Miles said. The negatives have been put in cold storage, he said.
Most of the photos are small black-and-whites measuring 2-1/2 by 3-1/2 inches or 3 by 5, he said. They are housed in a fire-protected stack area that has “advanced environmental controls, maintaining temperature and humidity at levels that are good for the material,” and access is limited with a variety of security measures, he said. “They’re in a good place, physically.”
Eventually, within the next two years, the university will enter details of the contents onto a descriptive online catalog that anyone could access, Miles said. That would tell people exactly what was in the collection. Putting the actual images online, for access over the Internet, is much more difficult, Miles said.As for their accessibility, Miles said that anyone interested in looking at them with a research project in mind can come to Yale and do so, free of charge. “It’s sufficiently organized to be used, but it’s not fully catalogued by any means,” he said. “If someone comes into the reading room, I’d say, ‘Tell me when you want to come and I’ll have it available for you.'”
“I could imagine that at some point we might well do some of Peter’s collection. It’s not sitting right on our priority list right now.”
Smaller portions of the collection, such as a rare group of 300 or 400 “cased images,” would be more likely to be tackled sooner, he said, and Yale would consider offers to subsidize an online posting of other portions.
Miles said he understands how some Humboldt residents would regret the loss of such a vast archive from our area, seeing Yale as the “big imperialist collector that sweeps in and takes stuff away.” But, he added, “the challenge of preserving local heritage is daunting.
“When Peter and I initially talked about this, we both recognized that New Haven’s a long way from Arcata.” However, “There aren’t too many places in the U.S. that collect western photography as aggressively and systematically as we do.
“The expense of doing what we’re doing is not insignificant. It’s a measure of how much importance we attach to the story of Humboldt County and the story of California that we go to this much trouble to take care of it.”
Parts of Palmquist’s collection may be displayed at some point, but display is not the library’s main purpose, Miles said.
“Our principal mission would be to take the best care we can of them so that they’re available for scholarly research for decades and decades and, I hope, centuries into the future. We certainly do exhibits, but we’re unlike an art gallery in that our principal venue for people to have contact with things is through our reading room. It’s more of a one to one.
“Given the size of our collections, most of our collections are never going to be exhibited.”
Miles declined to say how much Yale paid now-deceased photo collector Peter Palmquist for the collection. He did say that he had no question that Palmquist was honorable in his decisions about it.
“I think Peter would have been scrupulous if people had said, ‘Peter, I’m gonna give you this stuff, but you have to promise it will always stay in Arcata.'”
Matina Kilkenny suspects that no such promises were ever made. Kilkenny, research and collections manager at the Humboldt County Historical Society, said Peter often received images from people who were simply getting rid of them.
“A lot depends on how you present yourself,” she said. “If you tell donors they’ll always have access, then you have a responsibility” to provide that access. “I don’t think that’s the deal that Peter had with people. I don’t think he made promises. It’s hard to hold somebody to promises they never made.”
The real problem, she said, is that the information that could have been gleaned from the photos probably never will be. She blames herself for not being more assertive, for not trying to collect that information herself. “It wasn’t as if a crew was able to go in there [to his archive] and pull information off photos” before they went to Yale, she said.
In fact, Miles said that most of the Union photos are completely unlabeled. To Monica Hadley, that’s no surprise. Hadley, whose family owned the Arcata Union for 50 years until they sold it to publisher Curt Tuck, said that photos might have no identifying information on them “because the person using them would know” when the photo was taken and who was in it.
” It’s hard to imagine that [Palmquist] would send the pictures without going through them” and identifying them, she said, though it would have been a tremendous amount of work. If he didn’t, “I don’t know who they would get to do that.”
Kilkenny said she had no specific knowledge of the content or quality of the Arcata Union collection, but spoke in general terms about Palmquist’s entire photo collection which now resides at Yale.
She said that having the photos on the opposite coast without names and dates is regrettable. “Those photos sitting there at Yale without any identifying information is frustrating to a local historian – very frustrating,” she said. “Without the identifying information, it’s a lot less meaningful. Some of that was in Peter’s head. Now who’s going to do that?
“Having all those photos gone leaves a real gap in what was once available locally.”
Could they have stayed?
“I know that one of the most important things to Peter was to get them in a safe environment,” she said, “and I’m grateful for that.”Referring again to Palmquist’s entire collection, Kilkenny said, “It probably would have been a huge fundraising effort to house [the photos], hire someone to curate the collection…On the other hand, “at the time the Union photos became available, the Historical Society could have stored the photos, but it would be years before the public gained the access to Society photos that they enjoy today. In Peter’s collection, they were at least accessible during those intervening years,” she said. “In a way, Peter salvaged something that would have been gone, totally gone.”
Had Palmquist asked the Historical Society board whether they would have taken the Union photos, “I cannot know what we would have done.” Kilkenny said. “He did not ask the board. He announced to the board his intentions after the contract was signed.”
Like Kilkenny, representives of both the Humboldt County Public Library and the Humboldt State Library said that their venues would not have been adequate for Palmquist’s massive collection, and he did not raise the issue of sharing any of it with them.
“As a public librarian, I would have to say no – we would not have been in a position to care for it, process it, etc.,” said Joyce Johnson, the librarian in charge of the Humboldt Room at the Eureka library, which houses, among other things, about 300 historical photos.
Joan Berman, head of special collections at the Humboldt State Library, said their own Humboldt Room would not have had the space or the facilities to take Palmquist’s entire collection. But the Union photos are another matter.
“I would very much have wanted to explore that,” she said. “If Peter had been interested in leaving that portion here, I would certainly have considered how we would incorporate them in the Humboldt Room.”
That didn’t happen
Cory Gundlach, collections manager for the Morris Graves Museum, said Palmquist never spoke to him about the possibility of the Graves taking the Union photos. However, “he knew the space well. He knew that it probably wouldn’t be an option for him.” Palmquist’s partner of 26 years, Pam Mendelsohn of Arcata, declined to speak to the Eye for this story.” I am sad, on the one hand, that it’s not local, but I am delighted that Peter took the responsibility to see that the collection would go somewhere where it would stay in the condition that he wanted to see it in, as opposed to being separated. That was important to Peter.”
Palmquist’s stepdaughter, Rebekah Burgess, questioned in a written statement why researchers in the community did not “use the collection while it was in their own backyard for over 30 years? The question is not whether Palmquist should have sold his collection to the appropriate repository, but why some Humboldt County residents need to identify a villain for a loss of local history partially perpetrated by their own lack of previous interest.”
Palmquist himself addressed the issue of his work going to Yale in the KEET documentary.
“The custodial aspects of caring for these [photos]… it’s a 16-hour-a-day job,” he said. All of the photos needed to stay together, because they were “interconnected… directly symbiotic one with the other… That eliminated all the West Coast repositories.”
The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, for example, is so “constipated” with materials that parts of the collection are stored in Richmond, “and they bring it in over the highways, bouncing that stuff back and forth every time it has to be used. That’s just not acceptable,” he said. “I too am saddened that we can’t just have them right here. It’s just too big a burden. And unrealistic to expect that it could be accomplished with the facilities and staffings that are available [in Humboldt County] today.”