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Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical

By Peter E. Palmquist, Thomas R. Kailbourn

Review By Brian Dippie

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 138-139 Summer-Autumn 2003  | p. 206-7

PIONEER PHOTOGRAPHERS of the Far West is the finest reference work I have ever read, with the emphasis on read. The clear, precise, mainly biographical entries – some 1,100 of them arranged in alphabetical order -are a tribute to Peter Palmquist and Thomas Kailbourn’s scholarship, literary skills, and sheer perseverance in seeing a project of this magnitude through to completion. Their book covers all those involved in the photographic profession in the years 1840 through 31 December 1865 who worked in the present United States west of (and overlapping) the continental divide, in Mexico, Central America, and Hawaii, and in British Columbia – a generous definition of the “Far West” that should appeal to a wide audience of academics, collectors, and local history buffs. In addition, it covers moving panoramas – a popular form of entertainment that often involved some photographic preparation and that served as precursors to motion pictures. Palmquist and Kailbourn follow each individual profiled through to the end of his or her (nearly forty women are included) life. Many of the entries are short since a single newspaper mention might be the only reference available. Undoubtedly, subsequent research stimulated by this book will flesh out a few of these figures. The longer entries – up to seven pages for the most significant photographers – turn names into people and provide assessments of their professional accomplishments. They also reveal the prodigious research in primary and secondary sources undergirding the entire enterprise.

Several features facilitate this biographical dictionary’s usefulness as a reference work. Each entry begins with basic data: birth, death, and a synopsis of when and where the subject worked in the Far West. Sources are cited in full in the accompanying notes, collections containing examples of the photographer’s work are listed, and boldface serves to cross-reference individuals with entries of their own. The book is illustrated with images of the photographers and their establishments, and with examples of their craft. Of the five appendices, perhaps the most useful is broken down by geographical area. California, of course, leads the way – 791 photographers were lured to the “Golden State” – while British Columbia boasts thirty-five photographers, a few of whom were travellers who made photographs en route to the Coast. Two of the better-known figures in BC history, Richard H. Carr and Amor de Cosmos, merit substantial entries but do not appear in the geographical appendix under British Columbia because their photographic careers predated their residency in Victoria. Carr is showcased because his San Francisco daguerreian gallery, opened 25 January 1849, was “the first recorded establishment of that kind in the Pacific West”; his daughter Emily, described rather wonderfully as “a writer and artist of some renown,” is here relegated to a footnote (154-5). 

Individuals and libraries with an interest in Western cultural history will find Pioneer Photographers of the Far West an indispensable reference tool. It is a work of meticulous scholarship that also, from entry to entry, offers a fascinating read.