Press RoomPhoenix Art Museum to present first major exhibition of work by activist photographer Marion Palfi in more than 40 years

Phoenix Art Museum to present first major exhibition of work by activist photographer Marion Palfi in more than 40 years

Phoenix Art Museum to present first major exhibition of work by activist photographer Marion Palfi in more than 40 years
Apr, 15, 2021

Exhibitions and Special InstallationsPhotography

Phoenix Art Museum to present first major exhibition of work by activist photographer Marion Palfi in more than 40 years

Career survey highlights Palfi’s commitment to documenting social, racial, and economic inequalities of
20th-century America

PHOENIX (April 15, 2021) – This summer, Phoenix Art Museum will present Freedom Must Be Lived: Marion Palfi’s America,the first major solo exhibition of the photographer’s incisive work since her death in 1978. A self-described “social-research photographer,” Marion Palfi observed and documented victims of discrimination over three decades, exposing the links between racism and poverty in the United States. Organized by Phoenix Art Museum and the Center for Creative Photography (CCP), University of Arizona, and drawing exclusively from CCP’s vast Marion Palfi Archive, Freedom Must Be Lived features more than 80 prints and extensive archival materials, many of which have never before been exhibited or published. Shedding light on Palfi’s career-long focus on themes of inequity, solitude, and racial victimization, the exhibition provides unprecedented insight into the work of a photographer who created one of the most powerful visual documentations of 20th-century American injustice. Freedom Must Be Lived will be on view July 21, 2021 through January 2, 2022.

“We are delighted to present this timely exhibition of Marion Palfi’s socially conscious photography with Freedom Must Be Lived: Marion Palfi’s America,” said Gilbert Vicario, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and the Selig Family Chief Curator of Phoenix Art Museum. “This powerful and poignant retrospective highlights an extraordinary photographer whose work has been under-recognized for more than four decades, furthering the Museum’s commitment to showcasing works by diverse artists whose legacies have not yet been fully acknowledged in the canon of art history.”

Marion Palfi, Chicago School Boycott, 1963-1964. 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.

A German immigrant to the United States who fled during World War II, Palfi arrived in New York to a reality that stood in stark contrast with the myth of the American Dream. Outraged at the economic, racial, and social inequalities she encountered, Palfi spent the next three and a half decades traveling the nation to document various subjects, including the elderly, families of hate-crime victims, abandoned children, residents of the Jim Crow South, Los Angeles-prison inmates, Puerto Rican immigrants in New York, white supremacist groups, and Navajo families who were the victims of government-enforced relocation and “acculturation.” Her work was featured in numerous U.S. periodicals throughout her career, including Ebony and The New York Times, and she received sponsorships from the Council Against Intolerance in America, the NAACP, and the New York State Committee on Discrimination in Housing. Palfi also passed on her political and aesthetic philosophies through her role as an educator, teaching classes on the “social uses of photography” at the Photo League School (1948), The New School for Social Research (1959–1962), UCLA (1965–1966), and other institutions.

“Palfi’s vision and commitment to social justice allowed her to build a visual archive of otherwise ‘invisible’ Americans, reminding us of photography’s ability to influence social change,” said Audrey Sands, PhD, the Norton Family Assistant Curator of Photography at Phoenix Art Museum, a joint appointment with the Center for Creative Photography. “Her trenchant, poetic, and piercing work reflects her compassion behind the lens. She actively confronted the political, racial, and economic injustices that overshadowed her lifetime, so many of which still plague our country today. Given the continued resonance of these topics, now is the perfect moment to rediscover Palfi’s important work.”

Organized to showcase the four major projects of her career, the exhibition presents photographs from Palfi’s piercing nationwide study of disadvantaged children living in poverty, her documentation of systemic racism against Black Americans, her research into the abject living conditions of New York’s aging population, as well as her revelatory photographs, funded by a 1967 Guggenheim Fellowship, of the forced relocation of Hopi, Navajo, and Papago peoples in the Southwest. The exhibition’s numerous archival materials, including photobooks, magazine spreads, project proposals, and field research notes, provide audiences with additional context about the scope of Palfi’s photographic practice.

Freedom Must Be Lived: Marion Palfi’s America is the most recent collaboration between Phoenix Art Museum and the Center for Creative Photography. Over the past 13 years, the two institutions have organized nearly 40 exhibitions that bring outstanding works spanning the history of photography to wider audiences in Arizona and beyond.

About the Exhibition

Freedom Must Be Lived: Marion Palfi’s America will be on view from July 21, 2021 through January 2, 2022 in the Doris and John Norton Gallery for the Center for Creative Photography. The exhibition 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 and The Opatrny Family Foundation, with additional support from the Museum’s Circles of Support and Museum Members. For more details about the exhibition, please visit

Admission is free for Museum Members; veterans and active-duty military and their families; and youth 5 and younger. Entrance into the exhibition is included in general admission for the general public. During voluntary-donation times, the exhibition is offered to the general public with pay-what-you-wish admission. Voluntary-donation times include Wednesdays from 3 – 7 pm and the first Friday of every month from 3 – 7 pm. For a full breakdown of general admission prices and hours, please see

High-resolution images and required captions can be downloaded here. To request interviews, contact the Communications Office of Phoenix Art Museum at 602.257.2105 or

About Phoenix Art Museum

Since 1959, Phoenix Art Museum has provided millions of guests with access to world-class art and experiences in an effort to ignite imaginations, create meaningful connections, and serve as a brave space for all people who wish to experience the transformative power of art. Located in Phoenix’s Central Corridor, the Museum is a vibrant destination for the visual arts and the largest art museum in the southwestern United States. Each year, more than 350,000 guests engage with critically acclaimed national and international exhibitions and the Museum’s collection of more than 20,000 works of American and Western American, Asian, European, Latin American, modern, and contemporary art, and fashion design. The Museum also presents a comprehensive film program, live performances, and educational programs designed for visitors of all ages, along with vibrant photography exhibitions made possible through the Museum’s landmark partnership with the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. To learn more about Phoenix Art Museum, visit, or call 602.257.1880.

About Marion Palfi

A German immigrant to the United States during World War II, Marion Palfi trained as a studio portrait photographer and was mentored by Hungarian artist Martin Munkácsi before opening her own studios in Berlin and Amsterdam. After fleeing Germany during Hitler’s rise to power and arriving in the United States, Palfi began her work as a “social-research photographer,” spending months at a time following the lives of individuals or families and thoroughly investigating and immersing herself in various communities. In the early 1940s, she joined the Photo League, the progressive New York collective aimed at effecting social change through photography, where she befriended photographers Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, as well as other likeminded activists. Among her earliest, most ardent supporters were Langston Hughes, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the photographer and curator Edward Steichen, who included her work in the landmark Family of Man exhibition in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1967, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to document the treatment of Indigenous peoples in U.S. cities, and in 1974, she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant to document the American prison system. Throughout her almost-40-year career, Palfi worked with magazines, published books, exhibited her work in libraries, and took on government-sponsored projects across the country. Organized into long photo essays and book proposals, her photographs are renowned for being visually arresting and inciting viewers to action. In 1983, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona acquired Marion Palfi’s archive, which remains the definitive collection of her work.

About the Center for Creative Photography

The Center for Creative Photography is recognized as one of the world’s finest academic art museums and study centers for the history of photography. The Center opened in 1975, following a meeting between then University President Dr. John Schaefer and world-renowned photographer Ansel Adams. Beginning with the archives of five living master photographers—Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Frederick Sommer—the collection has grown to include 270 archival collections. Among these are some of the most recognizable names in 20th-century North American photography: Lola Álvarez Bravo, W. Eugene Smith, Edward Weston, and Garry Winogrand. Altogether, there are over eight million archival objects in the Center’s collection including negatives, work prints, contact sheets, albums, scrapbooks, correspondence, writings, audiovisual materials and memorabilia. In addition to whole archival collections, the Center also actively acquires individual photographs by modern and contemporary photographers. There are currently more than 110,000 works by over 2,200 photographers. A library of books, journals, and exhibition and auction catalogues, including many rare publications, plus an extensive oral history collection complements the archival and fine print collections. The combined art, archival, and research collections at the Center provide an unparalleled resource for research, exhibitions, loans, and traveling exhibitions. The Center has a full schedule of exhibitions, programs, and events designed to deepen an understanding of how the medium impacts society. For more details, as well as information on Center membership and ways to get involved, visit

Share this:

What can we help you find?

Need further assistance?
Please call Visitor Services at 602.257.1880 or email