Marilyn Stafford

Marilyn Stafford (1925-2023)

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, in 1925, Marilyn Stafford (née Gerson) planned to become an actress and singer following her training at the Cleveland Playhouse. In 1946, she moved to New York City, where she was given small acting roles off broadway and in early television.

Stafford was given a Rolleiflex camera by a friend in New York in 1947, which first piqued her interest in photography and to support herself in between acting roles, she found work assisting US fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo.

Her photographic career was formally launched in autumn 1948, when she took her first portrait of Albert Einstein for friends who were making a documentary film about him. She was given a 35mm SLR camera for the first time and a quick lesson in how to use it in the back of the car on the way to his house in Princeton, New Jersey.

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At the end of 1948 Stafford joined a friend on a visit to Paris and her career took on a new dimension. For a short while, she sang with an ensemble at Chez Carrère, an exclusive dinner club off the Champs-Élysées, where she became friends with the war photographer and Magnum co-founder, Robert Capa, and met French singer, Edith Piaf.

On a ferry crossing to England in 1949, Stafford had a chance encounter with Indian writer, Mulk Raj Anand. She had been tasked by an American friend to buy some specific books in London and by an incredible twist of fate the writer of those books was sat beside her on the ferry. Anand become Stafford’s life-long friend and introduced her to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was to become her photography mentor back in Paris. Unsurprisingly, Cartier-Bresson championed her street photography in the working-class neighbourhoods of Cité Lesage- Bullourde and Boulogne-Billancourt.

In 1951 Stafford spent a short period assisting US fashion photographer, Gene Fenn, in his Paris studio near Place de la Concorde and then worked for a public relations agency as a fashion photographer herself, an avenue of photography which was more welcoming to women. Fashion photography of haute couture clothing at that time was normally modelled in opulent surroundings but Stafford typically took a documentary approach, preferring to photograph the models on her beloved streets of Paris.

In 1956 Stafford married Robin Stafford, a British foreign correspondent working in Paris. In 1958, whilst six months pregnant, Stafford went on a personal mission to  Tunisia to document and publicise the plight of Algerian refugees fleeing France’s ‘scorched earth’ aerial bombardment during the Algerian War of Independence. Back in Paris she showed the pictures to Cartier-Bresson, who sent a selection to The Observer, which published two on its front page. In the same year as her first front page, Stafford’s daughter Lina, was born.

In 1959 Stafford’s husband’s work took the couple and their young daughter to Rome, where she photographed Italian writers Carlo Levi, Italo Calvino, and Alberto Moravia. Most poignantly, she photographed, Francesca Serio, the first person to take the Mafia to trial for murdering her son.

In 1960 her husband’s work moved the family on again, this time to Beirut for a year. Stafford travelled extensively in Lebanon during this time, photographing people and places, later published in her book Silent Stories: A Photographic Journey through Lebanon in the Sixties (Saqi Books, London, 1998). Stafford and her husband returned to New York for a few years after Beirut while their daughter was very young, until they finally separated.

In the mid-1960s, Stafford moved to London as a single mother and found regular work with the Observer and other UK and international publications, particularly Women’s Wear Daily and The Herald Tribune both on commission and self-assigned projects and it was during this period that she photographed many celebrities of the day including Sir Richard Attenborough, Donovan, Sir Alan Bates, Twiggy, Ossie Clark, Lee Marvin, Sharon Tate among others. Stafford also photographed on the set of feature films and commercials for Women’s Wear Daily, including Sir Richard Attenborough’s directorial debut “Oh What a Lovely War” (1969). Stafford was one of a handful of women photographers working for national and international newspapers and magazines at the time and was also one of very few women on the camera / stills Executive Committee of ACTT / BECTU. This gave her an insight into the difficulty of balancing a career in photography with single motherhood, which many years later led her to set up the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award with FotoDocument, to support women photographers globally.

In 1971-72, Stafford photographed Indira Gandhi, India’s only woman Prime Minister at home in Delhi and on her duties in Kashmir visiting military bases and wounded soldiers in hospital following the Indo-Pakistani War, which had led to the creation of the new state of Bangladesh. Following this trip, Stafford went to Bangladesh in 1972 in the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War to photograph its victims and the destroyed towns and villages, and to meet the founding father of the nation state of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

A selection of Stafford’s work is included in the archives of the University of Texas, US and she has been published and broadcast widely including with The Observer; The Guardian; The Daily Telegraph; The Times; The New York Times; The Chicago Tribune, ITV News at Ten; BBC Hard Talk with Stephen Sackur; BBC South-East, BBC North, The Los Angeles Times; Sussex Life.

In 2017, Stafford founded the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award for women photographers in association with arts social enterprise FotoDocument and supported by Nikon.

In 2018, Stafford received an Arts Council England grant for a touring exhibition of her portrait and fashion work of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

In February 2019, Stafford received an Award for Exceptional Achievement in Photography from best-selling UK publication, Amateur Photographer.

In March 2020, Marilyn received the Chairman’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the UK Picture Editors’ Guild Awards in London.

In October 2021, a retrospective book of her life’s work “Marilyn Stafford – A Life in Photography”, compiled and edited by Nina Emett, was published by Bluecoat Press.

In February 2022 a retrospective exhibition of “Marilyn Stafford – A Life in Photography”, curated by Nina Emett, toured to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and Dimbola Museum & Galleries.

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Marilyn Minter

Markéta Luskačová