Palfi’s philosophy of using photography to influence social change shaped her vision and distinguished her career. A German immigrant to the United States during World War II, Palfi arrived in Los Angeles to find a reality far from the myth of the American Dream. Outraged at the economic, racial, and social inequalities she encountered, she spent more than three decades traveling throughout the United States documenting various communities to expose the links between racism and poverty. As a self-described “social research photographer,” Palfi aspired for her photographs to live in the world and effect social change. Her work was featured in numerous American periodicals, including Ebony and The New York Times. Sponsors for her work included the Council Against Intolerance in America, the NAACP, and the New York State Committee on Discrimination in Housing.
Marion Palfi, Greenwood, Mississippi, 1963. Gelatin silver print. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: Marion Palfi Archive/Gift of the Menninger Foundation and Martin Magner. © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.
Each of the photographer’s four major projects are represented in the exhibition, including her piercing nationwide study of children living in poverty; her decades-long civil rights activism documenting the effects of systemic racism against African Americans; her research on the abject conditions of aging in New York; and her revelatory pictures, funded by a 1967 Guggenheim Fellowship, of the forced relocation of indigenous off of reservations in the Southwest. Weaving together more than three decades of work, the exhibition elucidates Palfi’s sustained focus on themes of inequity, solitude, and racial victimization. Taken as a whole, it elucidates the photographer’s crusade for human rights and presents a cumulative photographic record that resonates with many of the social concerns still plaguing the United States today.
Marion Palfi, Case History, 1955-1957. Gelatin silver print. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: Marion Palfi Archive/Gift of the Menninger Foundation and Martin Magner. © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents.
Freedom Must Be Lived: Marion Palfi’s America, 1940–1978 is organized by Phoenix Art Museum and the Center for Creative Photography. It is made possible through the generosity of the John R. and Doris Norton Center for Creative Photography Endowment Fund, The Opatrny Family Foundation, and Sue and Bud Selig, with additional support from the Museum’s Circles of Support and Museum Members.
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