In so many ways the legendary Marilyn Stafford was years ahead of her time and used her considerable influence to support emerging female photographers. With her passing at the age of 97 we look back to our interview with her in issue 172 of Professional Photo.
HAVING LED A LIFE that has all the makings of a tremendous film script, Marilyn Stafford is full of stories about the people she’s met, the places she’s been and the trails she’s blazed, the latter often inadvertently, as she followed her gut instinct and, by so doing, hit on something no-one else happened to be doing at the time. Throughout it all she remained crystal clear about her objectives and what it was that had inspired her to pick up a camera in the first place: “I always wanted to be a story teller,” she says simply, “and everything else just fell into place around that.”
Born in Cleveland Ohio in 1925 at the time of the Great Depression, her early aspirations weren’t centred around the visual arts at all. Rather she envisaged a career on the stage and, at the age of seven, she was training to be an actor with the Cleveland Play House, moving to New York when she hit adulthood because “that was where you went when you had to find work in the theatre.” Although she had some small roles off-Broadway and a few television appearances, like so many actors she was ‘resting’ for much of the time and to keep some income coming in she looked for additional work and ended up working as an assistant to the fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo, who was then on the threshold of a spectacular career in the business but at this point was shooting catalogue work.
“I learned so much from just being around in the studio,” Marilyn recalls. “I was the person who was known as the pin girl, because the models used to be pinned tightly into their clothes for the shoot to make sure they fitted perfectly and when it was over they would give a sigh of relief and there would be pins everywhere! I was at the bottom of the ladder at the time but was really enjoying the experience.”
Being based in such a buzzing and lively town, opportunities inevitably arose to meet up with other creatives. One day in 1948 some friends who were documentary filmmakers asked Marilyn if she would help them out on a job they had, to go and film an interview with Albert Einstein in nearby Princetown, New Jersey, where the hope was that he would speak out against the use of the atomic bomb, which he did.
“Up until that point I had been using a Rolleiflex,” says Marilyn, “but I was given a 35mm camera in the car on the way there, which I thought was marvellous, and I had to work out how to use it on the spot. Einstein answered the door himself wearing a sweatshirt and baggy pants and, while he was sitting in the big chair they asked him to use, he enquired of the director how many feet per second the film would go through the camera at. When he got his answer he politely said thank you, now I understand, and his humility stopped me in my tracks. It made me determined never to suffer fools lightly.”
Marilyn handed her film over and subsequently received a couple of prints but never saw the full shoot. But it was still an auspicious beginning and she had by now decided that photography was something that interested her and she had also made her mind up that she wasn’t cut out for the studio life. Her real passion was taking pictures out on the street and telling stories, and fashion at that point wasn’t the direction she particularly wanted to move in.
ABOVE: Albert Einstein, Princeton, New Jersey, 1948
Fashion shot taken by Marilyn on a rainy day in Paris in 1950, when her drive to shoot out on the streets was helping her to break down barriers.
Moving to France
The next break that came her way saw her heading to Paris later that year with a friend whose husband had been indulging in a spot of extra-marital infidelity. Marilyn found herself taken along for company at the husband’s expense: “I would never have travelled there on my own,” she says. “But I loved Paris and when my friend returned home I decided to stay on.”
Her theatrical background saw her take on a temporary job as a singer with an ensemble at Chez Carrère, a dinner club off the Champs-Elysees, and there she met the renowned war photographer and photojournalist Robert Capa. Shortly afterwards a friend that she’d made on a ferry crossing to England for a trip to London, the Indian author Mulk Raj Anand, introduced her to another photographic legend, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and it all helped to inspire her to continue taking her photography seriously, but very much on her own terms.
“Capa was a good friend but he saw me more as a little sister,” she recalls, “whereas Cartier became a big influence in my life. He took me under his wing and we would go out taking photographs around Paris together. He called me his decoy because people would notice me as a woman out on the streets with a camera because that was quite unusual and that would mean they would miss Cartier and he would be left free to take his pictures undetected.
ABOVE: A Baalbeck Bride on her throne, shot in the Lebanon’s Bekka Valley. BELOW RIGHT: Girls reading the Koran in front of the Jama Masid Grand Mosque in Agra, India in 1973.
“And I also went a lot of places on my own, just jumping on the buses and going to the end of the line to see where it would take me. One day I saw a little passageway and I wandered down it a little like Alice in Wonderland and found myself in a grand Edwardian environment called Cité Lesage-Bullourde near the Place de la Bastille, that had completely fallen into rack and ruin and was now a notorious slum. I wandered around there taking photographs of the children who followed me around. This set of pictures was set to be exhibited at The Sorbonne in Paris in April this year. Obviously the pandemic caused that to be cancelled, but I hope it’s going to be re-scheduled.”
Having married British Foreign Correspondent Robin Stafford in 1956, Marilyn proved that she had lost none of her drive and passion for telling a story through her photographs by taking on a personal assignment to travel to Tunisia two years later. Though “five or six months pregnant” at the time she set out to document and publicise the plight of Algerian refugees fleeing France’s scorched earth aerial bombardment in the Algerian War. On her return to Paris she showed Cartier-Bresson the work and he sent a selection to The Observer, which published two pictures on its front page.
Around this time Marilyn took on work as a fashion photographer for a public relations company, a job that she felt railroaded into in many ways since her preference was to continue as a photojournalist. “Fashion was seen as more of a woman’s occupation at this time,” she says, “and I would have preferred going on telling my stories in pictures but there were no opportunities for a woman to do that.”
However, she still made her mark by choosing to shoot fashion in a highly individual style, taking it out on to the streets in Paris and shooting in a documentary style rather than working in a studio or on location in opulent surroundings to suggest a sense of luxury, which was very much the convention at the time. It was a daring approach, years ahead of its time and the images still have a strong contemporary feel.
Travelling the World
Marilyn never lost her urge to travel and her husband’s work took the couple to Rome for a time and then, in the early 1960s, to Beirut for over a year. Marilyn travelled extensively through the Lebanon, photographing people and places, and much later (1998) published the work in the book Silent Stories.
After she and her husband separated Marilyn moved to London and continued to work as a photographer, freelancing as an international photojournalist for newspapers such as The Observer on both commissions and self-assigned projects, becoming in the process one of the few women photographers to be working for national newspapers at that time. One of her most high profile self-set projects was to spend a month following Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1972 – a set ultimately spiked due to the three-day week that was introduced in the wake of the Miners’ Strike – and she also worked as a stills photographer on feature films.
ABOVE: French singer Edith Piaf ‘The little Sparrow’ in Paris, 1950.
Following her retirement, the sense that she had been held back at several points throughout her career on account of her gender continued to concern her and she still feels regret that she was effectively barred from taking on some of the jobs she would have loved to have done that were dominated by males at the time. She also experienced first-hand what it was like to try to maintain a balance while working as a single mother with responsibilities to bring up a child, and it gave her the urge to try to make a difference.
A meeting with Nina Emett, the founding director of art education group Foto Document in 2017, was the catalyst for the setting up of the Marilyn Stafford Fotoreportage Award, funded for the past few years by Nikon, which provides a prize pot of £2000 to enable a female photographer to go and pursue a project that otherwise might never have the opportunity to come together. The award is reserved solely for documentary photographers who are working on projects that are intended to make the world a better place and which might currently be under-reported and Marilyn is clearly thrilled to be involved.
“The projects that have been completed so far have been amazing,” she says, “and there are some incredible female photographers out there working on some very relevant projects. My only wish is that we could attract still more sponsorship to extend the awards to create even more opportunities.”
Still passionate about her craft and still very much involved in the turbulent world around her, Marilyn was the highly popular recipient of the Chairman’s Award for lifetime achievement in the latest UK Picture Editors’ Guild Awards, and her work is increasingly being discovered by a new generation of image makers. The fact that she’s still making a difference in her 95th year can certainly be added to her long list of achievements and the trails she’s blazed have opened more doors along the way than she could possibly have ever imagined.
www.marilynstaffordphotography.com All images courtesy of Fleet Street’s Finest, a portal where it’s possible to buy prints from Marilyn and many other famous photojournalists – fleetstreetsfinest.com
ABOVE: French ready-towear fashion, photographed in Montmartre in 1950 accompanied by local children.
Marilyn Stafford 1925 – 2023
Donations are being collected in her memory to support the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award for women documentary photographers, facilitated by FotoDocument, or Amnesty International, another cause close to her heart.
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