Marilyn Stafford, a photojournalist rediscovered, dies at 97
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Marilyn Stafford, a photojournalist rediscovered, dies at 97
The photojournalist Marilyn Stafford in Shoreham-by-Sea, England, Feb. 15, 2022. Stafford, a onetime Broadway hopeful who became a photojournalist and captured her subjects at their most candid, and human, died at her home in Shoreham-by-Sea on the south coast of England on Jan. 2, 2023. She was 97. (Charlotte Hadden/The New York Times)

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Marilyn Stafford’s journey from aspiring Broadway singer and actress to noted photojournalist and fashion photographer started with a drive to New Jersey and a spasm of fear.

One morning in 1948, Stafford, who was 23, was tagging along with two friends who were driving to the home of Albert Einstein in Princeton, New Jersey, to make a short documentary about him and his views, as one of history’s greatest physicists, on the dawning of atomic weapons. On the car ride down, one of the friends handed Stafford a 35 mm camera and asked her to take some stills between takes. “I’d never used one before, and I went into a panic,” she recalled in a 2021 interview.

There was little to worry about, it turned out. Einstein, wearing baggy pants and a sweatshirt, seemed gentle and modest as he greeted the three at his door. As her friends set up their movie cameras, Stafford began snapping away as Einstein slumped into a floral-print chair near a fireplace and stared distractedly into the distance.

Her friends eventually sent her a couple of prints from her rolls of film. One stood out. Gauzy and slightly out of focus, the shot of the seated Einstein was not technically perfect, but it captured him in an unguarded moment, looking ruminative, perhaps mournful.

Stafford would eventually trade her Broadway dreams for a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera on her way to becoming a pioneering, if underrecognized, photojournalist and fashion photographer. But the Einstein photo was a harbinger of what would become her specialty: piercing the celebrity armor of Hollywood stars, fashionistas and even world leaders and finding a narrative behind the image.

Stafford died Jan. 2 at her home in Shoreham-by-Sea, on the south coast of England, said her publicist, Nicola Jeffs. She was 97.

“I like to tell stories,” Stafford said in an interview with The New York Times last year, “and for me, taking a photograph is like telling a story. I tell it subconsciously, as I take the picture.”

She never achieved anything close to the fame of 20th-century masters like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson. For decades, her archive largely consisted of shoeboxes full of photos stuffed under her bed, and much of her work might have been lost to history if it were not for a chance meeting with a photography curator named Nina Emett at a gallery show in Sussex, England, when Stafford was in her 90s.

Emett spent the next several years bringing Stafford’s work back into the public eye, culminating last year in “Marilyn Stafford: A Life In Photography,” a much-publicized retrospective that Emett curated with Stafford’s daughter, Lina Clerke, in Brighton, England, and an accompanying monograph.

“Working in this male-dominated field against the gender expectations of her time, Marilyn elevated social concerns that were ignored or underrepresented by mainstream media,” Helen Trompeteler, a British photography writer and curator and a friend of Stafford’s, wrote in an email. “Her exceptional archive provides a unique insight into 20th-century history and reflects her lifelong advocacy for women’s rights and representation.”

As a freelance photographer based in Paris in the 1950s and, later, London, Stafford chronicled the poor in Paris as well as the struggles of rape victims in India and of refugees from the Algerian War of Independence from France in the 1950s.

Even when photographing the famous, she typically opted to shoot them in candid, revealing moments at home. Over the years, she produced richly expressive portraits of film luminaries (Lee Marvin, Sharon Tate, Richard Attenborough and Alan Bates); era-defining models (Twiggy, Joanna Lumley); musicians (Donovan, Édith Piaf, with whom she briefly lived in Paris) and public intellectuals (architect Le Corbusier, writer Italo Calvino).

In 1972, Stafford spent a month shadowing Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, capturing her in quiet moments at home with her grandchildren and dog, as well in public moments, like visiting soldiers wounded in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.

Her fashion photography, which she started in the mid-1960s, came at a fortuitous time, with the rise of ready-to-wear, which brought the work of couture designers to the masses. But even when shooting for haute fashion magazines like Vogue, she brought a street-photographer’s taste for the authentic, posing models in Chanel and Givenchy, for example, in front of graffiti-strewn walls of Paris. She was delighted, she told the Times, to be called “a reverse snob” by the fashion editor of Le Figaro.

“I was never interested in studio work,” Stafford said in a 2018 interview with Photomonitor, a photography site, “because my real feeling was out in the world on a documentary and storytelling basis, rather than just photographing the clothes.”

Marilyn Jean Gerson was born Nov. 5, 1925, in Cleveland, the eldest of two daughters of Maurice Gerson, a pharmacist, and Dorothy (Soglovitz) Gerson, who sold antiques.

As a youth, Stafford studied at the Cleveland Play House. But she became aware of human suffering during the Great Depression through documentary photography, such as Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrant families escaping the Dust Bowl.

“From an early age, I was aware that horrible things could happen,” she said in a 2021 interview with Digital Camera World, a photography magazine. “But also, that something could be done about them if there was the will, and eventually it seemed to me that photography might be an answer, although that realization only came a lot later.”

Stafford studied English and drama for a time at the University of Wisconsin before moving to New York in 1946 to pursue a stage career. She made ends meet as an assistant to fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo. In 1949, she followed a friend in a move to Paris, which would become her home for more than a decade.

Landing a coveted singing gig at a dinner club off the Champs-Élysées called Chez Carrère, Stafford befriended entertainers like Noël Coward, Maurice Chevalier and Piaf as well as giants of photojournalism like Cartier-Bresson and combat photographer Robert Capa, who were among the founders of Magnum Photos.

Stafford told Capa that she was losing her singing voice and looking for a new career direction. He suggested that she work as an assistant to another Magnum founder and combat photographer, David Seymour, who was known professionally as Chim. Stafford had no desire to dodge bullets in war zones, Jeffs said in an email. Instead, she took a job in fashion public relations. (Capa was killed in 1954 when he stepped on a land mine while covering the First Indochina War; Seymour was killed by an Egyptian sniper two years later while covering the Suez crisis.)

Stafford would, however, soon travel to trouble spots around the world with her husband, Robin Stafford, a foreign correspondent for the British newspaper The Daily Express, whom she married in 1958 after a brief marriage to Joseph Kohn, a filmmaker.

She was six months pregnant with their daughter, Lina, when she followed Robin Stafford on an assignment to cover the war in Algeria. Marilyn Stafford considered the trip a work assignment of sorts for her as well. She took harrowing shots of Algerian refugees in Tunisia. “Nobody seemed concerned about the refugee crisis that was unfolding,” she said in the Times interview last year.

Upon returning to Paris, she sent her photos to Cartier-Bresson, who selected the best and sent them to The Observer, another British newspaper. It published two of her photos on the front page, one of a refugee mother, caked in dirt, nursing her child. The pictures helped raise awareness of the crisis.

The Staffords subsequently settled for periods in Rome, Beirut and New York. After the couple divorced in 1965, Marilyn Stafford moved to London and co-founded an agency specializing in fashion, partly as a means to fund her photojournalistic work. Fashion “has its fun side,” she told Photomonitor, “so that balances my serious side, if you will.”

She is survived by her daughter and a grandson. Her third husband, João Manuel Viera, whom she married in 2001, died in 2016.

In 2017, she founded The Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award, in collaboration with FotoDocument, a nonprofit organization that supports environmental and social photography around the world.

Stafford retired in the 1980s to learn Mandarin, write poetry and support human rights initiatives. Or maybe her razor-sharp photographic vision had lost a bit of clarity. “Many years ago,” she said, “a photographer in New York told me, ‘Photographers don’t grow old; they just grow out of focus.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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