Unfinished Stories, The Narrative Photography of Hansel Mieth and Marion Palfi
By Janet Zandy
(Review by Sue Doro)
As far as I’m concerned, all of Janet Zandy’s books are works of art in the genre of working class studies. From her first: “Calling Home: Working-Class Women's Writings 1990 “, then “Hands, Physical Labor, Class and Cultural Work” to her sixth and latest “Unfinished Stories” Zandy shows her personal and political commitment to discovering and promoting works of the previously undiscovered and unappreciated. Poetry, short stories, novels and now for the first time…photography… from the hearts and hard hats of American’s working class.
In the 1930’s and ‘40’s Hansel Mieth and Marion Palfi were two talented female photographers who aimed their cameras at disenfranchised workers and the unemployed across this nation. Even before well-known photographer Dorthea Lange’s depression era dust bowl pictures rode more popular photographic waves, Hansel and her husband Otto Hagel were pointing their lenses at farm workers in California’s produce industry telling the stories of these migrant workers and their horrendous working conditions at the same time Marion was investing her talents in similar scenes.
Neither woman knew there was a shadow image working another camera at the same time. Although Hansel and sister photographer Marion Palfi both immigrated to the US from Germany to escape the Nazi regime and even though their cameras captured parallel universes, these two amazing women never met each other or even communicated with each other.
Such was the world without internet, cell phones and social media!
How could we know about these traveling photographers of life in the American’s underbelly when they didn’t even know of each other? It took Janet Zandy’s research and commitment to bring their works out of the silence and invisibility of the past to the light of today thereby introducing each to each other posthumously.
Zandy discovered these talented women when she was able to do research at the Center of Creative Photography in Tucson AZ. She was looking at the archived photos of both women and when she placed their work side by side the pictorial voices of the unfinished stories became clear. Both women intentionally used their photos as narratives. According to Zandy, both viewed photography as a method of possibility of using “art to remake and repair the world”. Each picture embraced its own story. Each grabs the viewer and demands understanding of America’s working class and poor people’s lives in the Great Depression and the World War II years.
In reading Unfinished Stories I came upon a Hansel Mieth photograph I’d seen before. It was featured in the Rosie the Riveter Memorial Museum in Richmond CA, only a few miles from where I live in Oakland. Under the photograph, in place of the photographers name was the word “Unknown”. In fact I had taken a picture of it myself to place in an article I was writing for Pride and a Paycheck. Pride is a 15 year old news-magazine for women in blue collar nontraditional careers. I’m its editor. A Machinist by trade. Retired now. When I contacted the museum I told them about Zandy’s book. I explained I discovered the Rosie photo and wanted to pass the information on. They were delighted to have another piece of World War II history. Only this time it was “Herstory”!
Thanks to “Unfinished Stories” the museum is now able to replace “Unknown” with the name of the true photographer: Hansel Mieth.
At least one story has been finished and removed from the bin of silence…thanks to Janet Zandy!
(Available on Amazon)