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Marion Palfi

  • Marion Palfi was a German émigré photographer who lived in New York from the 1940s to the 1960s. Her photographic engagement in social and political topics made her name for her use of the camera to draw attention to social injustices.
  • Marion
  • Palfi
  • 21-10-1907
  • Berlin (DE)
  • 04-11-1978
  • Los Ángeles (CL)
  • Photographer
  • Marion Palfi was a German émigré photographer who lived in New York from the 1940s to the 1960s. Her photographic engagement in social and political topics made her name for her use of the camera to draw attention to social injustices.

    Word Count: 41

  • Selfportrait of Marion Palfi (© Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: Marion Palfi Archive).
  • Although her many photographic series and projects, created not only in New York but also on her travels across the U.S. and which consist of a huge collection of more than a thousand images, held today at the Center for Creative Photography, the life and work of Marion Palfi is very little studied. In 2021 a first solo retrospective Freedom Must Be Lived: Marion Palfi’s America, 1940–1978 was hosted at the Phoenix Art Museum in collaboration with the Center for Creative Photography. The images featured were made several decades ago, but continue to have relevance at a time when racism, discrimination, political violence and poverty still exist and raise awareness of the need for tolerant coexistence in our societies.

    Marion Palfi's first exile stop, in the late 1930s, was Amsterdam (Netherlands), where she had her own portrait studio. In 1940, she arrived with her husband in New York. Few details are known of her early days in the city. She was given her first assignment as a photofinisher by Pavelle Laboratories, which was founded by the émigré Leo Pavelle. Her first apartment was located on East 53rd Street on the corner with 3rd Avenue (today's Lexington Avenue), where she had a darkroom situated between the living room and the kitchen. (Berkowitz 1949) She soon began photographing for herself in New York and used her camera as a medium for studying and working on social and political issues. In 1945 she had her first solo exhibition at the Norlyst Gallery. Also in 1945, the Great American Artists of Minority Groups exhibition was sponsored by the Council Against Intolerance in America and it is possible that photographic series created by Palfi, of the émigré sculptor Chaim Gross and the graphic artist Leon Helguera in 1944, were shown.

    Through the exhibition she met such people as the poet Langston Hughes, Eleanor Roosevelt, Edward Steichen, John Collier and the émigré photographer Lisette Model, who later became part of her network. During the 1940s Marion Palfi made a series on Langston Hughes and his family. As Marion Palfi became a member of the Photo League, a school and association of photographers who used the camera to engage in socio-political activities, it can be guessed that she had connections in both the émigré and New York photo and art scenes.

    From the 1940s, she produced several series in New York. All portraits and series must be read within the context of social and ethnic life and also the social engagement of people fighting social discrimination in Help and Aid Centers and Institutions in New York. Examples would be Girl Gang and Boys’ Gang in New York of the Henry Street Settlement House, the Syndenham Hospital, everyday scenes of children and teenagers living in New York, the Children’s Court or the New York Training School for Girls, Hudson, New York.
    All these portraits and series represent their own microhistories and have to be read within the context of their social, political and ethnic histories and the struggle of minorities and outsiders for social justice. As she herself had arrived in New York as an émigré and a woman photographer - both also minority groups - , it can be argued that she felt solidarity with her subjects and used photography as a medium to narrate and illustrate the messages she wished to convey. This is also the case for the portrait series she made of the Japanese-American dancer Sono Osato.
    Palfi's photographs of the Henry Street Settlement House, which was located in the Lower East Side and provide opportunities for the residents through social services, arts and health programs, were published in the first issue of Ebony magazine, the first magazine to feature the work of African-American and minority group artists. One of her photographs, but mirror inverted, was featured on the cover (Ebony, 1 November 1945). Other female émigrés photographers as Ellen Auerbach, Erika Stone or Lilly Joss Reich and Ruth Staudinger also made series about the urban life of the gender, social and ethnic diversity on the streets of New York City.

    In 1948 some of Marion Palfi’s photographs were also part of the In and Out of Focus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Other émigré photographers who were represented there were Josef Breitenbach, Andres Feininger, Fritz Goro (the husband of Carola Gregor), Lotte Jacobi, Lisette Model and Ylla.

    On analysing portraits by Marion Palfi it can be recognised that she took them from different angles while capturing the personal and unique lives of her sbubjects in a human and equal way, making no distinction between ethnicities or socio-cultural identities. She often photographed people from the side or from an unusual perspective, in detailed shots or cut-outs – a photographic style and aesthetic reminiscent of the New Vision in 1920s' Germany. After studying theatre and dance in Berlin in the 1920s, Marion Palfi appeared as an actress and model in several films, including the musical Laterna Magica – auch eine Revue (1926, Friedrich Hollaender), in which the actress Valeska Gert also took part (Siedhoff 2018). Valeska Gert emigrated in 1939 via London to New York, where, in 1941, she opened her artists bar and cabaret Beggar Bar. Besides herself, other émigré artists were also given the opportunity to perform there. In addition to her theatre and dance work, Marion Palfi started to practice photography and began working as a retoucher in a small Berlin photo studio during the 1920s.

    Her first portraits chimed with the mood of the 1920s, when conventional modes of viewing were abandoned in favour of unconventional perspectives and artistic cut outs; it was also a time when the role of women was starting to change. Several of Palfi's portraits from this time, and from her later exile in Amsterdam, show these artistic aesthetic stylistics. During the 1930s she did some commissioned work and montages, and her photographs appeared in Die Deutsche Illustrierte. She may also have been in contact with the fashion and sports photographer Martin Munkacsi, who also lived in Berlin at the time and later emigrated to New York, where he was able to pursue his career as a photographer. At the end of the 1930s Marion Palfi moved to Amsterdam, where she opened a small portrait and photo studio. From the archive of the Center of Creative Photography and with the help of the estate of Anita Naef, some portraits of Klaus Mann can be identified, taken during his time in exile in 1933. (Töppelmann 2000)

    Throughout her entire life, Marion Palfi worked and photographed in series on specific topics, recording in her manuscripts the research and preparations she undertook. One of her first projects, funded in 1946 by a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship grant, focused on the experiences of children living in extreme poverty and she spent two years travelling throughout the U.S. Under the title Children In America, this series was shown in libraries, schools, colleges, and universities – and also at the New York Public Library. Out of this project came in 1952 her book, Suffer Little Children, which was published by Oceana Publications. A review of the book was written by her lifelong acquaintance, Eleanor Roosevelt, who honoured her project and the importance of the subject. Other projects in the following years were: There is No More Time (1949–1952), Children in America (1949–1952), In These Ten Cities (1950/51), Curacao (1953), One Month in Mexico (1955), You Have Never Been Old (1956–1958), Gangler Circus (1961), That May Affect Their Hearts and Minds (1963–1967), The Esau Jenkins Story (1963-1967), First I Liked the Whites, I gave them fruits (1967–1969).

    From 1959 Marion Palfi also worked at the New School for Social Research and gave courses in photography in combination with her social research and fieldwork. Her workshops, lectures and courses included: “Social Uses in Photography”, “Social Research with Photography”, “The Photographer as a Human”, “The Exact Moment” and, in 1958/59, the social geriatrics study You Have Never Been Old. Other émigré colleagues at the New School for Social Research were Charles Leirens, Lisette Model, Tim Gidal, Kurt Safranski, Josef Breitenbach and Alexey Brodovitch.

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  • Advertisement “Ein bischen tätige Liebe” for a cigarette brand with photograph of Marion Palfi and Aribert Mog (1904–1941). Modenschau. Illustrierte Monats-Zeitschrift für Heim und Gesellschaft, no. 202, October 1929, p. 43.
    Cover of Ebony with photograph by Marion Palfi (Ebony, 1 November 1945).
    Review of Marion Palfi's Suffer Little Children by Eleanor Roosevelt published in Des Moines Tribune, 10 December 1952, p. 20.
    Article on Marion Palfi in Aufbau magazin (Craemer 1949).
    Cover of Suffer Little Children by Marion Palfi (Oceana Publications, 1952).
    Announcement of Marion Palfi’s course at the New School for Social Research. New School for Bulletin, vol. 17, no. 2, 2 September 1959, p. 46 (© New School course catalog collection, NS-05-01-01. The New School Archives).
  • Berkowitz, George. “Typed memo to Marion Palfi.” (unpublished material, Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, Tucson, 20 April 1949).

    Blair, Sara. Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century. Princeton University Press, 2007.

    Craener, Vera. „Marion Palfi - kämpft mit der Kamera.“ Aufbau, vol. 15, no. 5, 1949, S. 19.

    Displaced Visions. Émigré Photographers of the 20th Century, edited by Nissan N. Perez, exh. cat. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2013.

    Ebony, 1 November 1945.

    Enyeart, Jim. “Marion Palfi – Social Research Photographer.” Exposure. Journal of the Society for Photographic Education, vol. 11, no. 3, August 1973, pp. 4–6. Accessed 19 February 2021.

    Gilbert, George. The Illustrated Worldwide Who’s Who of Jews in Photography. G. Gilbert, 1996.

    Hudson-Wiedenmann, Ursula and Beate Schmeichel-Falkenberg, editors. Grenzen überschreiten: Frauen, Kunst und Exil. Königshausen & Neumann, 2005.

    Invisible America. Exhibition of Photographs by Marion Palfi, exh. cat. University of Kansas. Museum of Art, Lawrence, 1973.

    Krohn, Claus-Dieter, et al., editor. Exilforschung: ein internationales Jahrbuch, vol. 16: Exil und Avantgarden. edition text + kritik, 1998.

    Marion Palfi, special issue of The Archive - Research Series, no. 19, September 1983. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.Accessed 19 February 2021.

    Martens, Klaus. Pioneering North America: Mediators of European Culture and Literature (Saarbrücker Beiträge zur vergleichenden Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft, 11). Königshausen & Neumann, 2000.

    New York Photography 1890–1950. Von Stieglitz bis Man Ray, edited by Ortrud Westheider and Michael Philipp, exh. cat Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg, 2012.

    Palfi, Marion. Suffer Little Children. Oceana Publications, 1952.

    Reframing America: Alexander Alland, Otto Hagel & Hansel Mieth, John Gutmann, Lisette Model, Marion Palfi, Robert Frank, edited by Andrei Codrescu and Terence Pitts, exh. cat. Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, 1995.

    Schaber, Irme. “Fotografie.” Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration 1933–1945, edited by Claus-Dieter Krohn and Patrick von zur Mühlen, WBG, 1998, pp. 970–983.

    Schaber, Irme. “‘Die Kamera ist ein Instrument der Entdeckung…’. Die Großstadtfotografie der fotografischen Emigration in der NS-Zeit in Paris, London und New York.” Exilforschung. Ein internationales Jahrbuch, vol. 20: Metropolen des Exils, edited by Claus-Dieter Krohn et al., edition text + kritik, 2002, pp. 53–73.

    Siedhoff, Thomas. Deutsch(sprachig)es Musical. Deutsches Musicalarchiv, January 2018. Accessed 19 February 2021.

    Sorgenfrei, Robert and David Peters. Marion Palfi Archive (Guide Series, no. 10). Center for Creative Photography. University of Arizona, 1985.

    This was the Photo League. Compassion and the Camera from the Depression to the Cold War, edited by Anne Tucker, exh. cat. Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago, 2001.

    Töpelmann, Cornelia. “Findbuch Nachlass Anita Naef.” Universitätsbibliothek München. Sammlung Thomas-Mann-Forum München, 2000. Accessed 19 February 2021.

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  • Helene Roth
  • Amsterdam, NL (1936–1940); New York, US (1940–1965); Los Angeles, US (1965–1978).

  • 229 East 53rd Street, Midtown Manhattan, New York City (residence and workplace, 1940–1965).

  • New York
  • Helene Roth. "Marion Palfi." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 01-02-2022.
  • Walter Sanders
    New York

    Walter Sanders was a German émigré photographer. In 1938 he arrived in New York, where he worked from 1939 until the end of his life for the Black Star agency and, from 1944, for Life magazine.

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    Kurt Safranski
    Picture AgentFounding MemberTeacherCartoonistPublisherIllustrator
    New York

    Kurt Safranski was one of the founding members of the Black Star photo agency, a teacher at the New School for Social Research and the author of photojournalistic articles and books.

    Word Count: 31

    Josef Breitenbach
    New York

    On arriving in New York in 1941, the German photographer Josef Breitenbach tried to restart as a portrait, street and experimental photographer, as well as a teacher of photo-history and techniques.

    Word Count: 30

    Andreas Feininger
    New York

    Andreas Feininger, was a German émigré photographer who arrived in New York with his wife Wysse Feininger in 1939. He started a lifelong career exploring the city's streets, working as a photojournalist and writing a large number of photography manuals.

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    Erika Stone
    New York

    Erika Stone is a German émigré, who moved to New York with her parents and sister in December 1936, at the age of 12. She went on to carve out a career as photographer.

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    Lisette Model
    New York

    Lisette Model was an Austrian-born photographer who lived in New York with her husband Evsa Model after emigrating from France. Her street photographs capturing the curiosities of everyday life quickly caught the interest of museums and magazines.

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    Charles Leirens
    New York

    Charles Leirens was a Belgian-born musician and photographer who emigrated to New York in 1941. While publishing two books on Belgian music, he also gave courses in musicology and photography at the New School for Social Research.

    Word Count: 36

    Tim Gidal
    PhotographerPublisherArt Historian
    New York

    Tim Gidal was a German-Jewish photographer, publisher and art historian emigrating in 1948 emigrated to New York. Besides his teaching career, he worked as a photojournalist and, along with his wife Sonia Gidal, published youth books.

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    Ellen Auerbach
    New York

    When she arrived in New York in 1937, the German-born photographer Ellen Auerbach (formerly Rosenberg) had already passed through exile stations in Palestine and Great Britain.

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    Ruth Staudinger
    PhotographerCinematographerArt dealer
    New York

    Very few and only fragmentary details can be found on the German émigré photographer Ruth Staudinger, who emigrated in the mid-1930s to New York City. Her nomadic life was also characterisedd by several changes of name along the way.

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    Rudy Burckhardt
    New York

    Rudy Burckhardt was a Swiss-born photographer, filmmaker and painter who emigrated from Basle to New York City in 1935. He was well networked within the emerging Abstract Expressionist art scene of 1940s' and 50s'.

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    Chinatown U.S.A.
    New York

    Chinatown U.S.A. is a photobook published by the German émigré photographer Elizabeth Coleman in 1946 focusing on American-Chinese communities in New York and San Francisco.

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    5th Avenue
    New York

    5th Avenue was the first photobook by Fred Stein and was created in 1947 with the publishing house Pantheon Books.

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    J.J. Augustin Incorporated Publisher
    Publishing House
    New York

    J.J. Augustin was a German publishing house in Glückstadt with a long history, going back to 1632. In 1936 the American branch opened in New York with a large artistic and cultural focus.

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    Pantheon Books
    Publishing House
    New York

    Pantheon Books was a publishing house founded in 1942 by the German émigré Kurt Wolff (1887–1963) and aimed at the exiled European community in New York.

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    Oceana Publications
    Publishing House
    New York

    Oceana Publications Inc was a publishing house specialising in law and civil rights founded by the British émigré Philip F. Cohen (1911–1998) in 1945.

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    New School for Social Research
    Academy/Art SchoolPhoto SchoolUniversity / Higher Education Institute / Research Institute
    New York

    During the 1940s and 1950s emigrated graphic designers and photographers, along with artists and intellectuals, were given the opportunity to held lectures and workshops at the New School for Social Research.

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    Norlyst Gallery
    GalleryArt Gallery
    New York

    Founded in 1943 by the American painter and art collector Elenore Lust, the Norlyst Gallery represented a cross section of contemporary painting, photography and other media focusing on surrealist and abstract expressionist styles and promoting women artists and photographers.

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    Beggar Bar
    New York

    Beggar Bar was an artists bar and cabaret which was founded in 1941 by the German actress and dancer Valeska Gert (1892–1978).

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    Pavelle Laboratories Inc.
    Photo LabPhoto Supplier
    New York

    Pavelle Laboratories was found in 1936 by Leo and Carmen Pavelle and operated on East 42nd Street. It was specialised in the development of miniature camera film and one of the first labs working with colour film.

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    Alexey Brodovitch
    PhotographerArt DirectorGraphic Designer
    New York

    Alexey Brodovitch was a Belarus-born émigré graphic artist, art director and photographer who, from 1933, worked in New York for Harper’s Bazaar magazine and at the New School for Social Research.

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    Lotte Jacobi
    New York

    In October 1935 the German émigré photographer Lotte Jacobi, together with her sister Ruth Jacobi, opened a photo studio on 57th Street. The two sisters had to leave their parents' photo studio in Berlin in the 1930s and emigrated to New York.

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    Lilly Joss
    New York

    Lilly Joss was an émigré freelance photographer in New York. She worked for the Black Star photo agency and magazines and was also a portrait and theatre photographer.

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    New York

    Ylla was an Austrian-born photographer who emigrated to New York in 1941. Specialising in animal photography, she produced not only studio photographs, but also shot outside on urban locations in the metropolis.

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    Carola Gregor
    New York

    The German émigré photographer Carola Gregor was an animal and child photographer and published some of her work in magazines and books. Today her work and life are almost forgotten.

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