Alfred T. Palmer 1906–1993

The Early Years

The intrigue of the ships coming in and out of the harbor at San Pedro, California was a harbinger of the life work for the little boy who would stand on the pier watching. He wondered about the places they had been; the faraway and unknown countries and people. Alfred’s destiny was in place.

Alfred was one month old when the great San Francisco earthquake wreaked its havoc on San Jose, where he was born. His mother set up the household, including the stove, in the back yard and his father took pictures of the quake devastation. His mother, Harriet, an enterprising woman, saw an opportunity in the rebuilding of the city and bought a hotel and then a restaurant. These businesses thrived and provided a living for the family.

In 1912, Harriet and her two youngest children got on a boat and moved to Long Beach where she paid $1000 for a delicatessen and bakery and continued to support her family.

In 1916, she had the opportunity to work for a company that owned a resort in Yosemite. She was in charge of the kitchen at Camp Curry and was there through the summer months cooking, baking and providing box lunches for the campers and hikers. Alfred begged her to let him visit. She finally relented and he packed up his Number 2 Brownie Kodak given to him by his older brother, Wallace, and plenty of film. He took pictures of the folks in camp and eventually met another young man who allowed Alfred to carry his tripod as they tromped over the valley on many photographic excursions. The young man was Ansel Adams.

“He finagled me into carrying his camera tripod, a G****** heavy piece of equipment to lug around.” (A quote from The Pacific Sun, July 1990). His compensation was a $1 Brownie box camera.

The wanderlust was in Alfred’s soul. At 16, he left home and traveled to Arizona in his Model T Ford with his little dog “Buddy” with the idea to be an archeologist. The desert was too hot and the digs even hotter. He continued on his way and ended up in Jackson Hole Wyoming, in the Grand Tetons, where he worked for Harrison Crandall, carrying water from the creek for Crandall’s darkroom. Back in Long Beach he hung around the harbor again and was there every morning hounding the port captain to hire him onto an outgoing ship. The port captain told the kid to get lost but Alfred persisted and finally was hired on as a cadet on the Dollar Lines President Monroe. He was 19 years old. This would be the first of his 23 trips around the world in the next 32 years.

1932 – 1945

Palmer became the official photographer and worked aboard Dollar Line, Matson and Moore-McCormack Lines ships around the world shooting 100s of images with his Graflex camera. He would trade with other crew members for daytime shifts so he could go ashore and photograph everything he saw.

In 1938, he packed cameras and darkroom equipment into his car and set out across America documenting everything that captured his interest from cows and pigs and corn to towns, cities, people and industry. He would develop the film in the bathrooms of the tourist homes and auto courts every night. He sold the negatives for a dollar each for use in educational books. He made contact prints of each one which are included in his vast portfolio of work.

In 1939 when Hitler attacked Poland the United States ranked twentieth as a world military power. In June of 1940 President Roosevelt and Congress passed a bill for the building of a major two ocean navy. At that time Roosevelt formed the National Defense Advisory Commission of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and Palmer was chosen to head the photography department. To rally and inform citizens about the use of their tax dollars and resources, Palmer was sent out to photograph Americans building what Roosevelt termed the Arsenal of Democracy. Aware of the power of mass media, the OEM wanted to provide images which would vividly convey their story in high contrast photos for magazines and newspapers. At the OEM, Palmer’s boss, Robert Horton, would brainstorm assignments, sending him into restricted industrial and military facilities. Once in the field, Palmer worked independently. He developed a style of quickly seeing the picture and catching the essence. Through this style he was able to convey the gritty texture and geometry of industrial form combined with the strong emotion of men and women attentive to their work. His dramatic tonal ranges and sharp focus approach reflect the early influence of his mentor, Ansel Adams.

In 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Palmer became official photographer for the newly formed Office of War Information (OWI). He also served as technical expert with final say on photographic equipment and processes. Now his images had to illustrate all aspects of the war effort, from industrial workers to conservation of resources and citizen participation. Palmer’s emphasis was on the typical American hard at work on the home front. His photographs were also an integral part of the “women power” campaign to change the public attitude toward women joining the work force. He showed women as patriotic, glamorous and capable, working on fighter planes as well as assembly lines. Palmer also focused on the dedication and dignity of the black labor force and worked with the chief of the News Bureau Negro Press.

In 1942, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was added as a joint agency with the OWI. Palmer and Roy Stryker shared creativity and conflict during those years in the dissident approaches to portraying America to herself. While Stryker’s unit showed a national self scrutiny of post depression America, Palmer sought to emphasize a moral building role through his photography. Palmer’s deep belief in promoting the spiritual strength of people permeates his entire career as photographer and filmmaker.

During his years with OWI Palmer worked with a number of significant photographers such as Esther Bubbly, Howard Leiberman, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lang and Edward Steichen. Palmer’s artistic style was recognized by Steichen, who featured his photographs in the historic traveling exhibit “Road to Victory”, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942. Alfred Palmer generated thousands of photographs that were widely published in the major magazines and newspapers in the United States and abroad. His works were praised for their exceptional symbolic power and striking use of intense contrasts conveying the courage and determination that Roosevelt sought to arouse in the nation. Much of the vast collection of Palmer’s photographs (including rare color transparencies) is housed in the National Archives and the Library of Congress.

After the war Palmer worked as staff photographer for National Geographic, but his interests had turned to filmmaking, something that the society had not yet approached. Through his own studio he devoted the rest of his career to producing films for the Maritime Commission, US State Department, shipping companies, multi-national corporations, Asian governments and humanitarian organizations. In 1987, Palmer’s entire west coast maritime collection was purchased by the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service to be housed in the San Francisco National Historic Maritime Park. In 1990, the Bank of America’s world headquarters in San Francisco presented two exhibits of Palmer’s still photography in a gallery setting. The first exhibit featured images of Asia during the twenties and thirties; the second depicted America in the thirties and forties.

Alfred Palmer passed away in 1993, leaving a legacy of life work that is unique in its very essence. This extensive collection of photographs and 16mm color film encompassing five decades of world cultures, World War II history and America’s maritime heritage becomes increasingly significant as a testimony to our humanity.