THE WORK AND THE ARTIST
Artist: Palfi, Marion (1907-1978)
Title: Wife of the Lynch Victim from the series “There is NO More Time”
Description of the work:
A young African-American man, Caleb Hill, Jr., was taken from his jail cell and lynched in the town of Irwinton, Georgia, in 1949. Two men charged with the lynching were acquitted of all charges after a one-day trial. Palfi traveled to the town to document this racially divided community, from the white supremacist mayor and KKK members to the victim’s wife, Josie, seen here.
The extraordinary black and white photograph is a close-up portrait of a young African-American woman, Josie, sitting in a high-back wooden booth with a partial view of a table and chair in the right side of the composition. The background is dark except for the bright light glaring over her shoulder, probably the camera flash reflected in a mirror. Sitting at slight angle with her shoulders sloping down, Josie stares to the right away from the camera, vacantly and unfocused, to some spot off in the distance. Her hair, combed back from her face, lifts away at the sides. She wears no jewelry or makeup. The style and sheen of her dress fabric suggest something a little more formal than daily wear. Even if the photograph were missing a title, the young woman projects a hopelessness that is palpable. The shattering consequences of profound racial prejudice are hauntingly reflected in the portrait. Palfi does not have to enhance the tragedy. She doesn’t pose her subject, she doesn’t add or remove anything from the background. There is no more lighting than necessary to capture the shot in a darkened room. She simply snaps a moment in time and allows the woman’s bleak face, emptied of emotion, to tell the story more powerfully than words. Palfi noted, “She told me her husband died because ‘he spoke up for his rights.’”
Born to an aristocratic family in Berlin in 1907, Marion began professional life as a model and actress working for her father, a producer-director, in several films. Rejecting Germany’s developing radical politics in the 1930s, she turned to photography as an outlet for personal expression and activism. She studied photography and opened her first studio in 1934. In 1940, she married an American soldier and immigrated to New York.
Upon her arrival in the United States, she resumed her work as a photographer for the U.S. Government war photography. She met Langston Hughes, the African-American poet who became a friend and supporter through an assignment. He introduced her to John Collier, Sr., social reformer and Native American advocate, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt an American politician, diplomat, and activist, and the influential, socially conscious photographers Edward Steichen and Lisette Model.
Palfi was a visual storyteller and produced a number of photographic essays on a broad range of social issues including Native American displacement, effects of child abuse, elder neglect, prison conditions, and the debilitating effects of poverty, racism and segregation on society.
From 1946 -1949, she was granted an award from the Rosenwald Fellowship and travelled throughout the U.S. photographing examples of racial discrimination. Some of her most memorable works was produced during this time. Her photo-essay on Jim Crow laws and lynching, There is NO More Time, was completed in 1949 and includes the featured photo, wife of the Lynch Victim.
Palfi received four major awards in her lifetime: a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (1946), a Taconic Foundation grant (1963), A Guggenheim Fellowship (1967) and A National Endowment for the Arts grant (1967). The grants and supported by her own finances, she document early civil rights, voter registration and lives of Native Americans. She rejected pursuit of a more lucrative, conventional career choosing instead to challenge the collective notion of the American Dream. Marion Palfi died in Los Angeles in 1978.
Signed: Marion Palfi, recto, lower right directly under print, graphite, possible inscription on verso but unavailable to view.
Date and dimension: 1949, Image: 13 1/2in x 10 3/8in; Framed: 16in x 20in
Medium: Gelatin silver print. The gelatin silver process uses gelatin, an animal protein, as the binder and developed silver as the image material. The most common black and white print process, introduced in 1885 and still in use today
Accession # and Acquisition Date: acc#: 1980.22.14 Date: 1980
Provenance and Exhibitions:
-The Jewish Museum NYC, March 2012. The exhibit, titled “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936-1951” featured the Photo League and its members; Palfi along with other artists like Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston. The focus of the League was the world of the working class community.
-The Underground Museum, Los Angeles CA, exhibit titled “Non-fiction,” May 2106 featured Palfi’s photo among other media artists in a visual story of violence against African-Americans, historical to contemporary.
Framed or Flat: Metal frame, print mounted directly on mat.
Current location: Piece is part of the University Art Gallery’s permanent collections at New Mexico State University.
-Berger, Maurice, “A Meditation on Race in Shades of White” 2015. Retrieved from http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/09/17/a-meditation-on-race-in-shades-of-white/
-Campney, Brent, “A State of Violent Contrasts: Lynching and Competing Visions of White Supremacy in Georgia,” 1949. Georgia Historical Society, 95 no. 2 (2011): 26, Accessed October 10, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41304288
-University of Arizona: Center for Creative Photography, the largest repository of Palfi’s archived work, scrapbooks, research notes, draft manuscripts and book maquettes.
-Zandy, Janet, Unfinished Stories: Narrative Photography of Hansel Mieth and Marion Palfi, RIT Press, 2013.
-Wife of the Lynch Victim 2006, Retrieved from http://thejewishmuseum.org
Reproductions: Prints of the image are also located at University of Arizona, Museum of Modern Art New York, Harvard Art Museum /Fogg Museum, Portland Art Museum, The Jewish Museum New York, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Researched By: Carleen Cirillo, 19 October 2016