Study investigates societal impact of photographic works

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Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona at Tucson

Marion Palfi’s photograph Somewhere in the South puts a human face on segregation.

The contributions of two pioneering women photojournalists and the impact their work had on the development of social activism and civil rights in the United States is the focus of a new study by Janet Zandy, professor of English at RIT.

The project, focusing on the lives and work of Hansel Mieth and Marion Palfi, has been awarded a 2009 Ansel Adams Research Fellowship by the Center for Creative Photography and a grant from the Peter E. Palmquist Memorial Fund of the Humboldt Area Foundation.

Zandy was a resident scholar at the center where she studied the prints and archives of Mieth and Palfi. She plans to situate their work within a larger project about the aesthetics and social consciousness of representational photography.

Mieth (1909-1998) and Palfi (1907-1978) are not familiar names in the history of photography, according to Zandy. Mieth became a staff photographer for Life magazine in 1938, where she produced photo essays on unwed mothers, animal experimentation, cowboys, politicians and the relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Palfi, affiliated with the Photo League and the recipient of multiple national grants, composed major photo essays on African-American artists, juvenile detention centers, the elderly, Native Americans, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws and lynching. One of her photographs was the cover for the first issue of Ebony magazine in 1945.

As German migrs who fled European Nazism, both photographers were troubled by the gap between American ideals and the harsh realities they witnessed, notes Zandy.

“They were extraordinary photographers and artists of great human compassion. Mieth understood the physicality of labor because she worked in the fields herself during the Depression, and Palfi was committed to using the power of photography to illuminate worlds most people would rather not see,” Zandy adds.

“Their socially conscious aesthetic merits scholarly attention. These two photographers were of their time and ahead of their time. They deserve their place in the history of photography.”