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Remembering Marilyn Stafford Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

25 January 2023

The photojournalist and fashion photographer Marilyn Stafford, whose work was rediscovered when she was in her 90s, died earlier this month at her home in Shoreham-by-Sea on the English coast. She was 97.

Stafford was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the eldest of two daughters of Maurice Gerson, a pharmacist, and Dorothy (Soglovitz) Gerson, who sold antiques. There, at the age of seven, she trained as an actor with the Cleveland Play House before studying English and drama at the University of Wisconsin.

She moved to New York City in 1946 where she acted in small roles off Broadway and did some early television work as well. She made ends meet as an assistant to fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo.

But one day in 1948 she tagged along with friends who were visiting Albert Einstein to make a film documentary on his views about atomic weapons. They handed her a 35mm camera to take stills while they filmed.

"I'd never used one before and I went into a panic," she described her first encounter with a camera.

'Photographers don't grow old, they just grow out of focus.'

But she did fine, capturing a candid of Einstein that revealed his humanity at the dawn of the atomic age.

It was a style of photography that led her naturally into photojournalism.

Starting in the 1950s, she worked freelance in Paris, photographing the Parisian poor, rape victims in India and Algerian refugees.

She stayed there for 10 years, singing at the dinner club Chez Carrère where she met Noël Coward, Maurice Chevalier and Édith Piaf, with whom she lived for a while, as well as Cartier-Bresson, who taught her street photography, and Robert Capa, who mentored her career.

When she started losing her voice, she asked Capa for career advice. He suggested working as an assistant combat photographer. But she was having none of it. She found work in public relations for the fashion industry.

When she later photographed celebrities, she used the same approach she had used with Einstein, shooting candids in their homes. Among her subjects were Lee Marvin, Sharon Tate, Richard Attenborough, Alan Bates, Twiggy, Joanna Lumley, Donovan, Piaf, Le Corbusier and Italo Calvino.

In 1972, she followed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi through India for a month.

She began shooting fashion in the 1960s for publications like Vogue. But on the street, not in the studio.

"I was never interested in studio work because my real feeling was out in the world on a documentary and storytelling basis, rather than just photographing the clothes," she explained.

She retired in the 1980s and slipped from view. "Photographers don't grow old, they just grow out of focus," she quoted a friend. But her archive of shoe boxes full of photos stuffed under her bed intrigued photography curator Nina Emett who spent several years bringing her back into focus.

Her interest in photography was sparked during her youth in Cleveland where she learned about the Depression from the documentary photography of people like Dorothea Lange.

"From an early age, I was aware that horrible things could happen," she said. "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."

The Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award is an international prize granted through an award founded in Stafford's honor in 2017. It is granted annually to documentary photographers working on projects which focus on unreported or under-reported issues.

Stafford was married three times. Her first marriage to filmmaker Joseph Kohn ended in divorce. She married Robin Stafford in 1958 with whom she had a daughter, Lina Clerke. They divorced in 1965. Stefford later married João Manuel Viera in 2001 who predeceased her in 2016.

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