The extraordinary life of Marilyn Stafford behind the lens

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Marilyn Stafford was largely unknown until the 1990s when she had a belated and glorious brush with fame. Stafford, who died at the age of 97, became famous in the way she should have been for decades. She was given a major retrospective at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, published a wonderful album of her photos, was interviewed by newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic and was finally able to tell her story.

And what stories. Albert Einstein, Indira Gandhi, Charles Aznavour, Édith Piaf, Henri Cartier-Bresson… this petite, modest American listed names like a shopping list. Stafford’s portfolio spanned a lifetime with compassion, humor and style. She felt equally at home documenting Algerian refugees who fled the French scorched earth policy, as well as photographing fashion or celebrity portraits.

She could have been a movie star or a great singer – and she almost was. Stafford grew up in Cleveland, Ohio during the Great Depression. Her father was a pharmacist who emigrated from Latvia as a young boy, her mother was a beauty who dreamed of being a “lady”. Her parents hoped she would be the next Shirley Temple, and from age 10 to 18, she trained at the Cleveland Play House alongside Paul Newman and Joel Gray. When I interviewed her last year, she described herself as “probably the only Stanislavski photograph around.”

Stafford was sassy and naturally funny. With fabulous deadpan seriousness, she told me how her mother died “of vanity” at the age of 103. Stafford would be a great character in golden girls.

After graduating from Wisconsin University, she moved to New York, where she played a few episodes in off-Broadway productions. But she struggled as an actress and ended up in photography by chance.

In 1948, two friends were filming a documentary about a physicist at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. They invited Stafford to come with them and asked if she would take a picture of him. That man was Albert Einstein.

It was her first commissioned portrait and she had never used a 35mm camera before. She was terrified, but you wouldn’t know it from the results. In one photo, Einstein looks wonderfully crumpled and curious (he just asked how many feet per second went through the documentary camera). In the second, he smiles. “I’d like to think he’s smiling at me,” said Stafford.

She liked the word serendipity. Einstein’s photo was unexpected. This was the next stage of her life, in Europe. When a friend discovered her husband was having an affair, she told him she was going to Europe with Stafford and he would pay for it. In Paris, at the age of 23, Stafford got a job as a band member at the exclusive Chez Carrère dinner club. She became friends with Eddie Constantine, who also sang there and met Edith Piaf.

She soon became friends with Piaf, who invited her to his home. Stafford briefly moved in with Piaf, Constantine and numerous homeless people, homeless people and celebrities for whom the singer provided shelter.

Next to her, in another attic bedroom, lived the singer Charles Aznavour. Of course, they also became friends. And of course she took pictures of Piaf and Aznavour. Stafford’s photos are endlessly surprising. Perhaps never more so than with Piaf, known for her sepulchral style and tragic atmosphere. All of Stafford’s portraits of the Little Sparrow are full of light and laughter.

She also became friends with the founders of the Magnum Photos collective, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David “Shim” Seymour. Cartier-Bresson taught her the quiet art of capturing moments (he would sit with a camera on his knee, and when he saw a photo opportunity, he would barely lift the camera to take a picture), while Capa encouraged her to become a war photographer and suggested she take a job as Shima’s assistant . Stafford claimed he was a coward, hated carrying heavy equipment, and declined the offer. Both Capa and Seymour were subsequently killed in action.

Stafford turned away from singing to focus on photography. She rode the bus from the left bank to the end of the line, where she photographed people in the slums of Boulogne-Billancourt. She could tell a story in one frame and find something extraordinary in everyday life, whether it was a little girl carrying a seemingly huge bottle of milk or a homeless woman sleeping in a pram.

In 1956, she married British newspaper foreign correspondent Robin Stafford (her second husband) and traveled with him as part of his job. In Tunisia, six months pregnant with her daughter Lina, she took a series of harrowing photos of Algerians in refugee camps. In one picture, a mother is holding her baby tenderly, but her eyes are thousands of miles away. It bears a striking resemblance to Dorothea Lange’s dumpster paintings. She sent the photos to her friend Cartier-Bresson, who in turn uploaded them to the site Observerwhich used two photographs on its front page. This caused Observer sending a reporter to cover the refugee story.

Perhaps my favorite photos of Stafford are the Italian worker and activist Francesca Serio, who was the first to sue the Sicilian Mafia after they killed her son. Serio’s face emerges from the blackest background, both blissful and accusing.

As a fashion photographer, necessity became the mother of invention. Stafford couldn’t deal with the technical issues of the studio shoot, so she took the models out into the natural light of the real world. Her photos are both incredibly effective and laugh out loud. In one, a gorgeous woman stands in front of the Louvre wearing a long white coat, a brollel in one hand and stilettos in the other, feet apart at a quarter to four. Only Stafford could turn a Marilyn Monroe lookalike into Charlie Chaplin.

After she and Robin divorced in 1965, she and Lina moved to England and made a living as a freelance photographer. Her celebrity portraits of ’60s icons like Twiggy, Sharon Tate and Lee Marvin are adorable – beautifully framed, intimate yet somehow distant. Instead of defining their topics, they leave you with questions about them. She used her more commercial work to subsidize humanitarian projects such as trips to India, where she spent a month following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and a trip to Bangladesh to document rape victims. This job meant the most to her.

She said, “While I really enjoyed doing celebrity portraits and fashion, I did it mainly to support my family and self-fund my reporting work.”

The annual Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award was established in her honor six years ago by the non-profit social enterprise FotoDocument. It is open to professional female documentary photographers working on projects that aim to make the world a better place.

Despite her outstanding work, Stafford never became a “name” during her career. She said many editors (invariably male) treat women as portrait photographers, while she prides herself on being a photographer who can draw attention to anything. After running a fashion photography agency, she retired, still only 50 years old.

For many years, she put photography aside and hid the negatives in shoeboxes under her bed. There was a happy third marriage to João Manuel Viera (a tango enthusiast and anti-fascist activist in Portugal during the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar who died before her), a move to Sussex, an engagement in poetry trails and a literary festival, and Mandarin lessons. Stafford has never sought a hobby.

In the early 1990s, local photographers and photography historians became interested in her works. There was an exhibition of her photos at the Lucy Bell gallery near her home in West Sussex, then exhibitions in Toronto and London, and finally a full retrospective. When Vanessa Thorpe reviewed the London show for The Observer, she said that “Stafford’s photographs represent a century of change, from the changing shapes of costumes to the effects of world conflicts.”

Last May, I interviewed her in front of an audience at a retrospective in Brighton. Stafford was charming, cool and intelligent. Her memory was encyclopedic and her intellect razor sharp. She barged into the gallery with a Fred Astaire chick, told stories with such passion as if she were telling them for the first time, cursed the state of the world, and at times giggled like a teenager. It went from funny to harrowing and back again.

After listening to her speech, the audience appreciated her photos even more. Now they understood that this inspiring legacy came from a great, generous heart that never lost hope.

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