Photographs by Rosenwald grantee Marion Palfi displayed in recent Jewish Museum show “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951” that closed on March 25th

The Rosenwald Fund continues to live on as Rosenwald Fellowship recipient Marion Palfi’s works were shown in an exhibit on display at the Jewish Museum until March 25th. The exhibit, entitled “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,” showed work from the famous New York-based social photography group to which Palfi belonged.

The Jewish Museum in Manhattan
Photo Credit: oh_annaluise, 2008 (flickr)

Born in Berlin in 1907, Marion Palfi grew up in a middle class household that encouraged her in various artistic pursuits. While still a teenager, she had a successful career as a performer (dancer, model and actress), but in her early twenties she gave it all up to pursue photography. By the mid-1930s, she owned a photography studio in both Berlin and Amsterdam. However, as World War II escalated, she fled Europe in 1940 to settle in New York City.

Palfi soon found work in a U.S. government war photography studio and began making contacts in the New York art and photography world, including Langston Hughes and Lisette Model (a Photo League member and also a fellow recent Jewish immigrant from Europe). Palfi’s work during this time on minority artists must have impressed the Rosenwald Fund trustees, as they offered her a substantial grant in 1946 that allowed her to take a three-year journey through the American South documenting Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination.

Some of Palfi’s most memorable work was produced during this period from 1946 to 1949. In addition to documenting everyday life under Jim Crow, she photographed racially-charged subjects such as the Columbians, a white separatist group in Georgia who took sartorial cues from the Nazis and enforced racial segregation with violence. One of Palfi’s most significant projects was a photo documentary of the aftermath of a lynching in Irwinton, Georgia. She gained considerable access to all parts of the community of Irwinton (the Ku Klux Klan, the black community, journalists and village leaders) and produced a manuscript about the event entitled There is No More Time, which remains unpublished.

Two of Palfi’s photos, both of which were likely produced during the time of her Rosenwald grant, were on display until recently in The Jewish Museum’s exhibit about the Photo League. The Photo League was a collective of social documentary photographers (including Palfi) that was active from 1936 to 1951. The first Palfi photo, In the Shadow of the Capitol depicts a street scene in a garbage strewn alley community just blocks from the Capitol building. The second photograph, Wife of the Lynch Victim, is a haunting image of the widow of Caleb Hill Jr., who was taken in 1949 from a jail cell in Irwinton and lynched. The University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography owns a huge collection of Palfi’s work, from before and after her emigration and on a wide variety of subjects, which is accessible online here.

Although Palfi’s story is the best example, there were several other interconnections between Rosenwald Fund recipients and the Photo League. Rosalie Gwathmey of the Photo League was married to Robert Gwathmey, the social realist painter and 1944 Rosenwald Fellowship recipient. Jack Delano of the Photo League encouraged Gordon Parks to apply to the Rosenwald Fund for a grant so that he could join him as a photographer at the Farm Security Administration (Parks became a Rosenwald Fellow in 1942). Also, Gilbert D. Olmstead was a black Pittsburgh-based photographer who received a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1946 and was later associated with several Photo League members, including Weegee.

By Michael Rose