Public Media Arts Hub

Exhibit showcases work of a forgotten photographer who documented the fight for equality


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new exhibit at the Phoenix art museum examines the work of a long overlooked German-American photographer who explored the links between racism and poverty in the U.S.

Stephanie Sy takes a look at the first major exhibition of Marion Palfi's work since her death in 1978. That's for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Stephanie Sy: A group of young children standing in an alley neglected in the shadow of the grand U.S. Capitol Dome, a call to action to address extreme poverty.

A portrait of a woman at a polling station in Mississippi registering to vote for the first time, her hands up. An elderly man in his room, alone and forgotten.

The uniquely American tragedies explored in these photographs are part of the exhibit Freedom Must Be Lived at the Phoenix Art Museum. It showcases the work of photographer Marion Palfi, who died in 1978.

Audrey Sands, Photography Curator, Phoenix Art Museum: Since then, she has kind of fallen into anonymity.

Stephanie Sy: Audrey Sands is photography curator at the museum and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, where Palfi's archive is held.

Why isn't her work better known?

Audrey Sands: Palfi was so deeply committed to political change and to educating the public, that her photographs circulated more in libraries and among policy-makers than in spaces of art history.

Stephanie Sy: Palfi called herself a social research photographer.

Audrey Sands: Palfi was really interested in these populations in America that have been forgotten, the most vulnerable children who have no power or ability to advocate on their own behalf, those who are suffering from dementia or extreme illness and aging in extreme poverty, who are losing their own voices and ability to take care of themselves and advocate on behalf of their health and well-being.

Stephanie Sy: The perspective Palfi brings to her documentary work can be traced back to Nazi Germany, which she fled for New York in 1940.

Audrey Sands: She was an outsider in a lot of ways, both as a woman in a field dominated by men, as an immigrant to America, a woman with an accent.

And I think she was able to relate to some of the experiences of the people she was drawn to photographing on a really visceral level.

Stephanie Sy: In 1949, she traveled to Irwinton, Georgia, after Caleb Hill Jr. was lynched by a white mob. Her portrait, Wife of a Lynch Victim, was groundbreaking and heartbreakingly intimate.

But her explorations of the roots of racism in America didn't end there.

Audrey Sands: Palfi said herself that she wanted to capture the face of the oppressor. Who were the people who were perpetrating it, who were themselves committing acts of violence, who were allowing, passively sitting by as racism persisted?

She was interested in telling, I think, a more complete story and also, coming from a background of Nazi Germany, as a kind of warning of what could build from those roots of hate, really.

Stephanie Sy: Palfi's work in the Deep South helped her land the cover photograph of the first edition of "Ebony" magazine. Being a white woman, Sands says, afforded her certain access.

Audrey Sands: But it was really her identity, I think, as a woman that gained her trust in a lot of spaces.

I can also say that there were a lot of barriers to entry for Black photographers and other photographers of color. And, unfortunately, that meant that the people who were able to tell the stories ended up more often being white artists and white photographers.

Stephanie Sy: Palfi spent months, often years with her subjects, following them over time. She spent years doing this in the 1960s and '70s while documenting the relocation and forced assimilation of Native Americans.

Audrey Sands: She has followed these families from their homes on the reservation, going through various bureaucratic and administrative processes to be kind of registered and properly educated and acculturated.

And then she follows up to see, what are their lives once they have reached that government-mandated goal? And there's a real sense that she is very attuned not just to what has been gained, but what has been lost in that transition.

Stephanie Sy: Palfi wasn't just focused on presenting an aesthetic. She wanted to change her subjects' lives.

Another unheard population she focused her lens on, the elderly. In the 1950s, Palfi conducted a study of aging in New York City.

Audrey Sands: You see her starting in this woman's home, as she's sort of packing up her things and preparing to check herself into an institution.

Stephanie Sy: The woman looks isolated.

Audrey Sands: Yes, I think she really captures a kind of quietness of this period of life and a kind of helplessness.

Stephanie Sy: What's most striking about the exhibit is how relevant it feels today.

Freedom Must Be Lived is on view through early January of next year.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.

Judy Woodruff: So glad we have gone back and looked at those pictures.

Thank you, Stephanie.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.