The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Earl Palmer, The Mountain Photographer

By Dale Belcher © 1987

Issue: April, 1987

Editor's Note... One of Earl Palmer's best photographic subjects was Dale Belcher's great-grandfather, Newton Hylton. Newton Hylton did the restoration work for the National Park Service on Mabry Mill in the 1930's. Earl was on hand to photograph the process. Years later, Dale met Earl Palmer by chance at Ferrum College, Virginia.

SPRINGTIME IN THE BLUE RIDGE - Mountain Grist Mill as seen through the lens of photographer Earl Palmer.SPRINGTIME IN THE BLUE RIDGE - Mountain Grist Mill as seen through the lens of photographer Earl Palmer. The Mountain Laurel front page photo April, 1987.

On a cold day in early December I got up early one Saturday morning and started the thirty two mile trip to Christiansburg. I was going to spend the weekend with my good friend, Earl Palmer. I would go over to his house and we would go up in the mountains and take pictures. We would take the back roads to try to find things from the past. We have been taking pictures together for nearly two years. We've been to West Virginia about three times and this past fall, we took a two day trip to Harlan County, Kentucky to visit some of the places he lived and worked in his younger days.

Earl Palmer, The Mountain PhotographerEarl Palmer, The Mountain PhotographerIn my picture taking, Earl has been a very big help to me. He is always showing me how to read the subject that I want a picture of, getting the right angle or the right amount of light, raising or lowering the camera. It's so many little things that goes into making a good picture.

Earl was born in a mining camp in Harlan County, Kentucky nearly 82 years ago. For a man of 82 he is in remarkably good health. Sometimes when we are out in the mountains together we hike four or five miles over rough land. Sometimes I can hardly keep up with him.

As a young boy, Earl worked for a circus. His job was taking care of the elephants and camels. Earl got his first camera when he was about seven years old. He's been selling pictures to newspapers and magazines for over 50 years.

All of Earl Palmer's photographs were taken in the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia. He's got photographs of the Smoky Mountains and Cumberland Gap before they became State Parks. He first started writing stories and doing photography for the Louisville, Kentucky Sunday Newspaper.

Earl worked for A & P Stores for 23 years where he was manager of some stores. Then he moved to Cambria, Virginia where he and his wife ran a general store. He was the mayor of Cambria for ten years until it became a part of Christiansburg. [Earl Palmer still works at a supermarket three days a week.]

What makes Earl Palmer's photography stand out from everybody else's is that his subjects are fast disappearing or have already gone. Earl would go off in the mountains and leave his wife for two or three days at a time taking photographs. He would always take a tent and camp out. Anything that the mountain man has ever done, Earl Palmer has it in photographs   Making chestnut rails, tanning leather, making oak baskets, brooms, soap, molasses, making wagons, log cabins, wooden shingles, making water wheels for grist mills, the list goes on and on. He has done a lot of photography around Floyd, Patrick and Franklin Counties on everything from quilting, apple butter making, blacksmithing to moonshining.

Earl has one of the biggest collections of photographs of steam engine trains, grist mills, log cabins, mountain medicine and moonshine stills you have ever seen.

Earl has had articles and photographs published in such magazines as Life, National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, and his most recent, The Virginian. Newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Star, Philadelphia Enquirer, Boston Globe and Denver Post have run his articles. Now he's doing a story for the Los Angeles Times. One thing that makes his photographs sell so well is his writing style that goes along with it.

When Charles Kurault's "On The Road" television show for CBS came to Virginia about two years ago, Earl did a moonshine story for Charles Kurault.

Earl has given hundreds and hundreds of photographs to colleges such as Ferrum in Virginia, Berea in Kentucky, and Virginia Tech. Right now Virginia Tech is doing a book on the life of Earl Palmer. Earl is doing most of the writing for it. It should be out in the fall of 1987. [Editor's note... We will try to find out when this book will become available and get information so you can order it.]

In the 1950's and 60's, Earl was one of the chief photographers for Standard Oil Company's "Scenic South" magazine. He also worked for several other travel magazines sponsored by automobile companies.

When it comes to copying old faded family photographs, Earl is a master. He will sometimes spend two hours working on a negative. When a picture comes out of Earl Palmer's dark room, it is perfect!