(Originally published in the San Francisco periodical Photo Metro, 1990)
Elliott Linwood: Your name has been associated with the history of photography mostly through the books you’ve written and exhibitions you’ve curated. Is your approach different than other analyses of the medium?
Peter Palmquist: The difference is that I’m an antiquarian. I consider all old things to be of equal value. This approach is almost diametrically opposed to an art historian’s view of things. I’m also a practicing commercial photographer, which means that I have little patience for isolating and holding up the “purely artistic” qualities of any given photograph. This is especially so with the kinds of work that I deal with, which is largely nineteenth century work that was a commercial product of the times. And yet we now have created a sense of art and a market place for these old photographs, so that they are packaged in a way that is very different from the original intentions of their creation.
But certainly the Carleton Watkins work you’ve examined was intended by him to be very artistic, in a way that would increase its commercial value. Does the issue of aesthetics enter into the antiquarian’s evaluation of photographs?
It can’t help but enter into my evaluations. Because I love photography, and because my background has been in appraising quality work that is well composed, finished and presented, I can recognize various aesthetics from different eras. And there will be certain photographs that I gravitate to because of their composition.
I can say generally that Watkin’s stuff is wonderful, but there are also a lot of absolutely dull, boring, self-serving things tucked in there. I’ve learned enough about him to recognize that a lot had to do with the nature of the assignment, the pressures of the day, and the economics. That he was able to create any real works of art is almost magical when you consider the obstacles he encountered. It is easy to think of him in Yosemite at a happy time doing good work. It’s hard to think of him in the bowels of the mines of Montana when he’s suffering vertigo, illnesses and arthritis. But his attention to detail and his concern about the quality of his work remained the same. He never lost sight of that. And in a sense we are collecting and appreciating his integrity.
You’ve written about Watkins’s decision to re-photograph his world famous views because others began to profit by duplicating his original copyright unprotected images as their own. You also trace the aesthetic development evident in the retakes. This is almost diametrically opposed to the position taken by Weston Naef (the curator of photography at The Getty Museum in Los Angeles) and others who discount the retakes as redundant. How do you find most of your information and how do you handle it?
It’s all pretty interrelated. The antiquarian approach as applied to Watkins essentially says that until you study absolutely everything available that a photographer has done, you cannot begin to understand him properly. There was a prevailing art historical opinion, as you mention, that when Watkins retraced his steps there was a diminishment of aesthetic value in his work. However, if you examine all of the artifacts related to his New Series, you will see that much of it is greatly improved! Stronger. He went to wide-angle more and more, using ovals and dome-tops, all sorts of things that communicate the sense of excitement he felt as he revisited these favorite places. The problem is that the body of later work in traditional collections is sparse, and that made it unavailable to art historians who evaluated his work too early on. For example, there is an album of Watkins’ work in the Oakland Museum that is just astonishing for its modernity. There are views where you might be lying flat on your back and looking directly overhead at tree canopies. Naef and others would have gone bonkers over them if they’d have known of their existence.
So, your method uncovers these things?
Exactly. In fact I’ve often said I try to examine photographers’ lives from the ankles up. Otherwise you cannot compare the work of one to another. This sometimes leads to disappointments. Sometimes a photographer mass produces, fails to maintain quality, through the aging process, economic problems, carelessness and so on. But not to examine all of that, I think is a huge mistake. Just think of all the people who have either failed, we do not remember or never really knew. They may have produced work of great value and there may only be one example. I study literally hundreds of thousands of photographs by thousands of photographers without restricting what I look at, and without neglecting to take notes on them.
I’m a regionalist examining Californian photographers. The area is large enough to be significant and small enough to be potentially manageable. I spend my whole life studying this region, and I’m very sure another lifetime could be spent studying what I missed. In order to do this you need to examine the history and evolution of an area, the commerce that drove it, and the things that people thought to be important. One of the things I examine is record keeping, namely city directories and census records. Another is packages that have survived of family remembrances, documents, photographs and genealogies. The third and maybe the single most important and unifying cement to my approach is the study of newspapers. By reading these, you are able to piece together the events of the community, the awareness of that community about itself and its attitudes about the larger world.
Frequently, I’ll find an article in a local newspaper about the development of the ambrotype. Next thing you know a local photographer is using this technique! I must admit that I’ve surrendered the broad world view of history – to those better able to synthesize the material along those lines – and focus on a reading of the local social climate in small nineteenth century Californian communities.
Do these newspaper accounts serve as a form of cultural anthropology?
My idea of photographic history has a great deal of attention paid to the reporting and the language of the times. If you have a post-mortem from the 1850s, you cannot appreciate it as effectively as when you also have a bit of poetry written about the deceased child and a sense of what the papers are talking about, such as the fragility of life or things that are eternal.
I think that immersion is essential because you can study photographic history today and learn to say yes, that’s a certain photographer, a certain period, etc. But, of course, it is far more powerful to understand the context in which the photograph was produced. Though the style of description in the period journalism as well as the period photography may seem naive to us in retrospect, it was just as sophisticated in that age as anything we do today. We also have a temptation today to read into yesterday’s photographs all sorts of complex issues, which may or may not be there. Our current ideas need to be measured against the historical record.
What made you shift to your present focus of women in the history of the medium?
Surely I’m the most unlikely person to have begun working on women in Californian photography, because I had no particular preparation for it. But when I came across the work of Emma B. Freeman, it didn’t fit my knowledge of the region. All of it was just Greek and I found myself reading forty years of daily newspapers to put her life together. Having assembled a dossier of information about her, I was confronted with the issue that it needed to be written up. This was in 1975. Since I knew no one who could help me, I started. I had an enormous amount of soul searching to do, reexamining my perceptions of a career like hers. I think it altered my consciousness in a very positive way.
In 1979, Americana magazine did a feature on my work. Out of that came some very interesting letters, one of which was from an eighty-year-old woman whose mother had been a pupil of the Clarence White School. But no one of our generation had ever heard of her. Eventually I mounted an exhibition of the platinum prints she sent me and prepared a catalog. When she received the catalog she phoned me and wept, because I basically had put Louisa Halsny back into the historical literature.
The realization developed that I was studying the people no one knew, or had forgotten or misunderstood. It occurred to me that women were in this category. So I began actively seeking information on this topic. Five or six years ago we had the first ever Women in Photography Symposium in Syracuse, to which I was invited as a speaker. I was the only male, the only non-PhD historian, and the only speaker from the west. I went, even though I knew I’d be out of my element, because I recognized I had data no none had ever heard of. It really put me on the map. I’ve been going back as a contributor ever since, each time with a newly published work. I am not the least bit interested in doing feminist writings or anything of that kind. I am simply trying to sort out the historical record. There are a few people who are upset that a male is doing women’s history. If we are talking about setting the record straight, it doesn’t matter to me who does it. For the most part, however, women’s history organizations have been very supportive.
In the case of the women’s directory I’ve just completed, I had no model for how it should be, and simply used my best instincts. I show that women occupied ten percent of the workforce in the photographic trades in nineteenth century California. By 1910 the census tells us it was twenty percent nationwide. There are about 950 women from California represented in my first directory about the period up to 1901. California is obviously going to have more than the average, as is the case for some of the eastern states. But, for some reason I don’t quite understand, there is a very high amount of female participation in the midwest. Some of these people were very accomplished and reputable, practicing early on with careers lasting sometimes over forty years. The fact that we had lost someone like Elizabeth Fleishmann from our history is just amazing! Why isn’t anyone else doing this kind of investigation?
Your recent publications do invite people to update, enlarge and circulate this kind of information. What are your feelings about being a collector?
There seem to be two kinds, those who grasp and those who participate in a meaningful way, making everything work together well. In my case I’m super protective of my role as someone who has information, who shares it and does not unfairly profit from that knowledge. Otherwise, people feel badly along the way and won’t share anything. The good collector not only finds the material, but also learns about it. The personal collector is in a much better position to make the artifact widely available without the politics of loaning, and is much better able to service it too, not just in terms of care, but in terms of understanding it and putting it in context. That’s why when Sandra Phillips [the curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] involved local collectors in the museum setting it was such an exciting thing to do. But when collections are sucked up by, say, the Getty Museum and dumped into a huge bottomless pit, all these kinds things are literally lost. They are no longer accessible to someone like me.
When collecting this material, I make no decisions of rejecting it, unless I can’t afford a picture. I don’t care what condition it’s in or how uninteresting, if it has the photographer’s name on it, especially Californian, then I want it. I happen to especially love images of the photographers themselves! Time and again people will bring me things and ask, what is this worth and who should I sell it to. I’ll appraise the work and often say they should sell it to me. Frequently people will simply do that, although I tell them what I can afford to pay, which is sometimes enormously different than the market value. I have never been to an auction, but am requested by them to evaluate or confirm old photographs. Lastly, I always try to collect one nice thing in connection with every project I work on.
And your latest project was curating the exhibition currently at the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley. How did you get involved in that?
I was consulted on the installation of the larger traveling Solomon Nunes Carvalho show. They needed a daguerreotype studio set up, some precise identities for a particular time frame, and to satisfy several historical relationships. We began talking about Jewish photographers eventually. Since I was aware of Louis Heller, for his Modoc Indian War field coverage, and Elizabeth Fleishmann’s x-ray photograms, and that they were both active during this period, it seemed like a good match. When I indicated that both of these people needed exposure, the Museum provided the smaller gallery and printed a catalog.
You see, if there’s room and an opportunity, I believe in using it to present new information about the variety of these people, and to show how they used and developed different facets of the medium.
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This interview was conducted at Peter Palmquist’s home in Arcata, California on August 5, 1990.
The exhibit, Louis Heller and Elizabeth Fleishmann: 19th Century Jewish Photographers in California, will be on view at the Judah L. Magnes Museum through October 7, 1990.
Some of the works by Mr. Palmquist referenced in this interview include:
Shadowcatchers: A Directory of Women in California Photography Before 1901, Arcata, California, Palmquist, 1990.
Camera Friends and Kodak Girls: Writings by and about Women Photographers 1840-1930, New York, New York, Midmarch Arts Press, 1989.
Carleton E. Watkins Photographer of the American West, Albuquerque, New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press, 1983.