Photographer Marilyn Stafford, who died on January 2 at the age of 97, attributed much of her success to chance: being in the right place at the right time. “I think there are gnomes or little guardian angels hovering over me,” she once said.
But many of the lucky chances that marked her 40-year international career as a street photographer, portraitist and fashion photographer were brought about by her gregarious nature and adventurous spirit. Three decades after her retirement, she and her photographs were rediscovered and last year the subject of a retrospective in Brighton and an accompanying book, Marilyn Stafford: A Life in Photography (2021).
Marilyn Gerson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1925 and moved to New York in the post-war years to work as an actress. To pay the rent, she took her first photography job as an assistant to fashion photographer Francesca Scavullo.
Her singing talent landed her a performance in Paris at the “in” cabaret club Chez Carrère, where she met Robert Capa and later Henri Cartier-Bresson, co-founders of the Magnum photography agency. Capa invited her to work with him, but he was a war photographer and war was not her thing. Cartier-Bresson invited her to work with him as a street photographer and hone her skills under his guidance.
The subjects of Stafford’s portraits ranged from scientist Albert Einstein to singer Edith Piaf, supermodel Twiggy to actress Sharon Tate, actor Lee Marvin to author Albert Moravia. They were photographed not in the studio, but at home or outside, having fun.
As a fashion photographer, she pioneered outdoor photo shoots in the streets of Paris. As a news photographer, she captured the suffering of refugee women and children in Tunisia fleeing the brutality of the Franco-Algerian War of Independence. As a social and political commentator, she photographed the daily life of Lebanese villagers, cows being milked in Indira Ghandi’s Indian dairy on the campaign trail. Her style – restless, deceptively casual – masked a keen, well-trained eye for composition and form.
From the late 1940s to the 1980s, she lived and photographed in New York, Paris, Rome, Beirut and London for several years with the British journalist Robin Stafford, her second husband. In London, together with the French photographer Michel Arnaud, she founded her own agency specializing in international fashion. Fashion was her bread and butter, but social observation was her art, from the slums of Paris to rape victims in Bengal to fruit sellers and tinsmiths working in a market in Tripoli. “Photography, when used honestly, is a testimony, a powerful record of the human experience,” she said in a recent interview.
When used fairly, photography is a witness, a powerful record of human experience
When she retired in the 1980s, her work, published in international magazines and newspapers, disappeared from view. “Photographers don’t age, they just blur,” she commented with characteristic wry humor. However, recent years have seen a rediscovery and reappraisal of her status as a pioneering artist working worldwide across a range of photographic genres.
In 2017, the Marilyn Stafford PhotoReportage Award was created, supported by Nikon, offers an annual grant of £2,000 to female documentary photographers anywhere in the world working on social, environmental, economic or cultural projects. A retrospective held last year in Brighton, near her home in Sussex, and published Marilyn Stafford: A Life in Photography, was curated by Nina Emett, who is, as usual, the niece of a former colleague.
“Serendipity reared its pretty head,” Stafford said. “It should have been.”
Marilyn Jean Gerson; born Cleveland, Ohio December 5, 1925; married first Joseph Kohn (marriage annulled); 1956 Robin Stafford (died 2017; one daughter; marriage dissolved), third João Manuel Viera (died); died Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex 2 January 2023.