Marilyn Stafford Trailblazing Photographer Dies Aged 97 – Claudia Barbieri

Marilyn Stafford

Like many women artists of her generation, the photographer Marilyn Stafford, who died on January 2 aged 97, won public recognition late in life after decades of neglect by a largely misogynistic critical world.

Serendipity raised its pretty head”, she said in a recent interview

Between 1946, when she started her career in post-war New York as an assistant to the fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo, and the early 1980s, when she retired into secluded domesticity in Britain, she earned a living from newspapers and magazines, specialising in fashion shoots and photo documentaries.

Édith Piaf, Paris, c1950. © Marilyn Stafford
Édith Piaf, Paris, c1950. © Marilyn Stafford

It was only in the past decade that, in common with painters such as Rose Wylie and Paula Rego and her contemporary, the photographer Lee Miller, she was rediscovered as a groundbreaking pioneer of her craft, her reputation gaining traction from a long-overdue feminist revision of the canon of western art.

Marilyn Gerson was born in Depression-era Cleveland, Ohio, in 1925. A talent for the performing arts brought her to post-war New York in 1946. To pay for her lodgings and acting studies, she went to work for Scavullo and, almost by accident, notched up her first portrait shoot –the peace activist and physicist Albert Einstein.

The same talents brought her a gig in Paris as a singer at the chic dinner club Chez Carrère, a hang-out of jet-set ex-pats and show-biz celebrities. Robert Capa used to drink at the bar. A chance encounter introduced her to Henri Cartier-Bresson, Capa’s partner in the Magnum photo agency. Capa invited her to work with him, but Capa was a war photographer, and she preferred life over death. Nevertheless, Cartier-Bresson invited her to work with him as a chronicler of everyday life, and it was under his guidance that she honed her camera skills.

Edith Piaf, Eddie Constantine and Jean Gabin were regulars at Chez Carrère. Lee Marvin sometimes dropped in. People there were famous and also often friends. She photographed them, not in a studio but at home or out and about having fun.

Another Paris acquaintance was a colourful Fleet Street foreign correspondent, Robin Stafford, whose claims to fame included being the last British reporter to receive a message from his London newsdesk via an African runner with a forked stick. They married in 1956 and had a daughter, Lina, together before competing career demands drove them apart.

As a fashion photographer, Marilyn pioneered ready-to-wear outdoor shoots in the streets of Paris. “She was the first to take models out of the studio and into the streets – long before David Bailey became renowned for coming up with the idea,” recalled the artist Elizabeth Mienert, a longtime friend.

As a news photographer, she captured the suffering of refugees in Tunisia fleeing the brutality of the Franco-Algerian war. She photographed women raped in Bengal, victims of India’s post-partition ethnic and religious divides. As a social and political commentator, she recorded the daily life of Lebanese villagers, cows being milked in an Indian dairy, Indira Ghandi, on the campaign trail. Her unposed, deceptively casual style masked a sharp, well-trained eye for composition and form. Fashion was her living, she would say, but the social observation was her art.

From the late 1940s into the 1980s, she lived and photographed in New York, Paris, Rome, Beirut, and London, where she co-founded her agency with the French photographer Michel Arnaud. She also frequently worked in India, smoothed by introductions – not least to Mrs Ghandi – from her friend, the writer Mulk Raj Anand, a Dickensian champion of India’s underclasses.

When she retired in the 1980s, her work, published in international magazines and newspapers, slipped out of view. Then came rediscovery.

In 2013 the Indian High Commission in London put on a retrospective of her work. In 2017 the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award was created, with support from Nikon, offering a £2,000 annual grant for women documentary photographers worldwide working on social, environmental, economic or cultural projects. Last year saw another major retrospective in Brighton, near her Sussex home, and the publication of an accompanying book, Marilyn Stafford: A Life in Photography, curated, as it happened, by the niece of a former colleague.

Self-deprecating, she put the revival down to chance more than merit. “Serendipity raised its pretty head”, she said in a recent interview. “It was meant to be.”

Marilyn Stafford: b November 5, 1925. d.January 2 2023

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