Matina Kilkenny: Palmquist’s Humboldt History Archive – His To Sell And Ours To Lose – March 21, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Note: This opinion column was originally published July 8, 2003. – Ed.

It’s time for me to write for the public eye my thoughts about Peter Palmquist’s photograph collection going to Yale.

In last week’s McKinleyville Press and in this edition of the Eye, there appear portions of an interview I had some months ago with Emily Gurnon about the Peter Palmquist archive. My thoughts on the subject of Peter and his collection are too complex to be reduced to quotes in one newspaper article (or even two, since my comments also featured in a January 24, 2002 North Coast Journal article by Bob Doran). I want to attempt to set some things straight.

I make these comments on my own behalf. No one connected to my employer, the Humboldt County Historical Society, has vetted what I write here.

First of all, Peter Palmquist owned a business that he had every right to sell. His commodity happened to be photographs. He called himself an obsessive collector and he was right about that. Over the 30-plus years of his gathering, he picked up photographs wherever he could. As he said, he got more discriminating as he went along, but anyone who knew him could tell you that there was lust in his eyes whenever he saw a photo that he wanted to own. I have no argument with his collecting nor with his sale of that collection. I certainly expected that he would one day put it on the block.

I did not expect it would be so soon, I did not expect it would be to the East Coast, and more to the point, I did not expect a man so full of life and plans to be caught under the wheels of a car and leave us and his collection behind so suddenly. I would much rather be having this discussion with Peter than about Peter.

Second, it was some years ago now that Peter was tape-recorded on the subject of historic photographs: I remember what he said because it succinctly points up the difference between Peter’s view and my view about historic, local images (developed during my eight-year tenure as manager of research and collections at the Humboldt County Historical Society).

Peter said, “I don’t care if the picture is of Mrs. Smith, I just care that Mr. Jones was the photographer.” In other words, any historical information about the subject of the photo was incidental to Peter. The critical pieces of information for him were: who photographed the image and how does it fit in with the collected works of that photographer-artist?

This is not to say that Peter did not know about the subjects of the images he collected, it simply means that it was not his first priority, whereas it has to be my first priority. On behalf of the Humboldt County Historical Society, I try my best to know as much as I can about our ever-growing collection of photographs, ephemera and print material. We now have close to 70,000 photographs, nearly 100 percent of them donated to us by our members. We would love to know who shot the images, but our first questions have to be: If it is a portrait, who is the subject? If it’s a structure or a landscape, where was the photograph taken? If it records an event, what was going on?

Our members and the researchers and writers from around the country who contact us for images expect us to be able to access images based on subject. Our electronic catalog includes the name of the photographer when it is known, but that catalog so far represents only a fraction of our collection, whereas the physical housing of the photographs provides immediate subject access. It is the case, at least for this historical society, that very rarely does anyone know to ask for the work of a particular photographer.

I’ve gone into detail about how the Humboldt County Historical Society organizes its photo collection to illustrate that we have a different “angle” than Peter took, even when we looked at the very same image. In Bob Doran’s 2002 Journal article, Peter expressed the importance of the context in which he collected photographs: “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.”

On the subject of photographers and their contribution to history, local historians owe a huge debt to Peter. The research that he performed or supervised others in performing was of the most painstaking and tedious variety: they surveyed over a century of professional photographic journals, local newspapers and city directories to gather information about local photographers and photographic studios. Before he sent the collection off to Yale, he arranged for photocopies to be made of these voluminous files. Bound, they fill 15 volumes. The Historical Society makes frequent use of this resource.

Third, in defense of his lack of trust in this community to recognize and support his photograph collection, I want to say that Peter had been watching carefully for many years, and he saw other collections, like the work of the highly-respected photographer David Swanlund, lost to this region through lack of will (and a fear of fundraising) on the part of the community.

On the other hand, I believe Peter hadn’t bothered to update his image of us. He lacked faith in the creativity of this community to put together funding solutions. Perhaps, had we been offered the opportunity, the combined efforts of the Humboldt Area Foundation, Morris Graves, HSU, the Clarke, the Historical Society and other historical and cultural organizations, along with interested individuals from Humboldt County and elsewhere around the state, could have pulled together the creation of a new space and the funding to store, display and curate Peter’s life work right here, in his own backyard.

Fourth, Humboldt County did appreciate Peter and his collection. Authors went to him for help in illustrating their texts, and like any good businessman who would serve his customer if he could, he tried to find photographs that would fill their need. He provided prints and charged for his work. Dozens of texts not written by Peter were enhanced by the use of photographs from his collection. Some deal with the history of our region, like Gayle Karshner’s A Bell Rang in Uniontown and Dennis Turner’s Place Names of Humboldt County: A Compendium 1542-1992, but Peter is also known for bringing images of the North Coast to the attention of scholars all over the country.

And fifth, what I grieve most about the out-of-area sale is the loss of information that individual pictures give us about our community. I was never invited to see Peter’s photograph collection, but I suspect that many photos in the Humboldt County Historical Society collection are also in Peter’s collection. If time had allowed, maybe we could have shared identifications.

After the trucks took his collection cross-country to Yale, Peter offered for sale some prints he had made of some of the images. The society purchased a couple dozen and Peter told me what he knew. There were places I didn’t recognize but I can identify those photos today because Peter told me where they had been taken. Now he’s gone and we’ve lost both the man and his encyclopedic memory.

Matina Kilkenny’s Arcata backyard once hosted a wandering elk.

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