Peter Palmquist, 66; Photography Historian

Times Staff Writer

Peter Palmquist, a noted photography historian, author and creator of the Women in Photography Archive, has died. He was 66.

Palmquist, who was planning to marry in April, died Jan. 13 at Alameda County Medical Center Highland Hospital three days after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking his dog in Emeryville, Calif.

Paramedics rushed Palmquist to the hospital but he never regained consciousness. The dog, a corgi named Max, was not hurt.

As a collector, Palmquist concentrated on three areas: the American West; California, with a special interest in Humboldt County, where he lived most of his life; and professional women photographers. The Women in Photography Archive alone includes about 8,000 works -- some anonymous, some signed -- many by women who had their own photo studios around the turn of the 20th century.

Palmquist was one of three brothers born into a blue-collar family in Oakland. He had a college diploma from Humboldt State, but little formal education in art or photography history.

He was content to remain in the logging community of Arcata, near the Oregon border, where he lived in a house he restored over the years. He was more comfortable backpacking or gardening than touring exhibition openings.

'Almost Anti-Academic'

"Peter was almost anti-academic in some ways," said Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Center. Naef was in Northern California the day Palmquist died, to meet with him about their long-running project to catalog the works of Carleton Watkins, a 19th century American photographer. The meeting never took place. "I've lost my most treasured colleague," Naef said.

Palmquist had published his own book on Watkins, "Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West," accompanied by an exhibition that traveled to museums in Fort Worth, St. Louis and Boston in 1983. The show included images of gardens, cityscapes and Spanish mission churches, correcting older assumptions that Watkins was exclusively a landscape photographer.

"With the Watkins show, the world took note of Peter," Naef said. "It became widely known that he was capable of in-depth research of a particular kind."

Palmquist's research methods were the opposite of those of most photography historians, Naef explained. The typical approach is to begin with a written document, the Gettysburg Address, for example, and move from there to related images. "Peter began with the photograph," Naef said. "For him that was the essential object. From the picture he was led to search for documents."

His approach was compatible with his preference for obscure photographers he could afford to collect and could bring to life by starting with a few of their signed or unsigned pictures. His Women in Photography Archive contains hundreds of names of women not mentioned in any history book. To discover more about them requires painstaking research, the sort Palmquist became known for.

"He dealt with photographers who were more like grains of sand than big stars in the pantheon," Naef said, "because he believed that the truth about any culture is in an accumulation of factoids."

Palmquist began his career as an Army photographer. He married during his military service in Europe, returned to California in the late 1950s, took a job as the staff photographer for Humboldt State and enrolled as an undergraduate student. He and his wife had three daughters before divorcing.

Palmquist remained on staff at the university until retiring in 1989, supplementing his income for many years by photographing weddings -- more than 750 in all, most of them in Humboldt County.

He became interested in historic photographs in 1971 when he stopped at an antique store in McKinleyville, Calif. The shop owner asked him what he did for a living. His answer led her to show him a stash of old photographs of California. He bought all of them. "It blossomed into a passion and obsession," Pam Mendelsohn, his fiancee and partner of 26 years, said of that first, accidental discovery.

Soon after Palmquist began to collect photographs, he started writing books and articles about them. He published about 60 books and several hundred articles on photography. He also served as president of several photography associations, including one that concentrates on daguerreotypes and another that studies stereopticons.

His most recent book, "Pioneer Photographers of the Far West" (2000), with Thomas Kailbourn, is a biographical dictionary covering 1840-1865. The authors intended it as the first in a series. They completed their second book, "Pioneer Photographers From the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains," a few days before Palmquist's death. It will be published late this year by Stanford University Press.

Mendelsohn said Palmquist had arranged for his private collection of more than 150,000 photographs and archive material to go to Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, known for its Americana holdings.

Over the years, Palmquist converted every existing toolshed and storage space on his Arcata property into an office, darkroom or archives. "It looked like a small college campus," said Kailbourn, a freelance editor who lives in Wellsville, N.Y., about his first impression of the property. Palmquist restored the older buildings and built several others.

In the early 1970s, he was offered an exhibit of his growing collection at the International Center for Photography in New York City. Mendelsohn told him it was his debut in the world of photography historians and a chance to expand his network. "He said he didn't think he'd go to the opening," she recalled. "That was our first big fight."

Worked on Miniseries

He went after all, and a stream of consulting jobs followed. One of the most prestigious was as a researcher for the PBS television miniseries "The West" with executive producer Ken Burns in 1996.

In recent years, amateur collectors and students have trekked to Arcata, curious to meet Palmquist and see his holdings. "He treated everyone who came to see him like royalty," Kailbourn said. "He believed you didn't have to have a PhD to do excellent research. For him, the main thing was to be passionate."

In addition to his partner and fiancee, Mendelsohn, Palmquist is survived by three daughters, two brothers, one stepdaughter and several grandchildren.

A memorial is scheduled at 1 p.m. March 22 at the Morris Graves Museum of Art, 636 F St., Eureka. For details, call (707) 442-0278. Contributions in Palmquist's name can be made to the Humboldt Arts Council, 636 F St., Eureka, CA 95501, or AFS Intercultural Programs, Northwest CA Area, 1017 G St., Eureka, CA 95501.

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