Einstein, Piaf, Twiggy: Marilyn Stafford’s extraordinary life behind the lens | Pictures

Einstein, Piaf, Twiggy: Marilyn Stafford’s extraordinary life behind the lens | Pictures

Marilyn Stafford was largely unknown till her 90s, when she had a belated and superb brush with fame. Stafford, who has died aged 97, turned celebrated in the best way she ought to have been for many years. She was given a significant retrospective on the Brighton Museum & Artwork Gallery, printed a powerful e-book of her images, was interviewed by newspapers on each side of the Atlantic, and at last acquired to inform her tales.

And what tales. Albert Einstein, Indira Gandhi, Charles Aznavour, Édith Piaf, Henri Cartier-Bresson … this tiny, unassuming American lady reeled off names like a grocery checklist. Stafford’s portfolio lined all life with compassion, humour and magnificence. She was equally at residence documenting Algerian refugees who had fled France’s scorched earth coverage as she was taking pictures vogue or movie star portraits.

She may have been a movie star or distinguished chanteuse – and nearly was. Stafford grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the course of the nice melancholy. Her father was a pharmacist who had emigrated from Latvia as a younger boy, her mom a magnificence who dreamed of being a “woman”. Her mother and father hoped she could be the subsequent Shirley Temple, and between the ages of 10 to 18 she skilled on the Cleveland Play Home, alongside Paul Newman and Joel Gray. After I interviewed her final 12 months, she described herself as “in all probability the one Stanislavski photographer round”.

Stafford was sassy and naturally humorous. With a superb deadpan, she advised me how her mom had died “of self-importance” on the age of 103. Stafford would have made an excellent character in The Golden Women.

Einstein, Piaf, Twiggy: Marilyn Stafford’s extraordinary life behind the lens | Pictures
A mom and youngsters refugees in a camp close to the bombed village of Sakiet alongside the Algerian frontier. First printed within the Observer in March 1958. {Photograph}: Marilyn Stafford

After graduating from Wisconsin College, she moved to New York the place she performed just a few cameos in off-Broadway productions. However she struggled as an actor, and located her approach into pictures although a fluke.

In 1948, two pals had been making a documentary a couple of physicist at his residence in Princeton, New Jersey. They invited Stafford to associate with them, and requested if she would take his {photograph}. The person was Albert Einstein.

It was her first commissioned portrait and he or she had by no means used a 35mm digicam earlier than. She was terrified, however you wouldn’t have recognized from the outcomes. In a single image, Einstein appears splendidly crumpled and curious (he had simply requested what number of toes per second went by way of the documentary digicam). Within the different, he’s smiling. “I’d wish to assume he was smiling at me,” Stafford stated.

She was keen on the phrase serendipity. The Einstein photograph was serendipitous. So was the subsequent stage of her life, in Europe. When a pal found her husband was having an affair, she advised him that she was going to make a journey to Europe with Stafford, and he could be paying for it. In Paris, now aged 23, Stafford acquired a job singing as a part of the ensemble on the unique dinner membership Chez Carrère. She made pals with Eddie Constantine, who additionally sang there and was courting Edith Piaf.

A fashion photoshoot in Montmartre, Paris in 1960.
A vogue photoshoot in Montmartre, Paris in 1960. {Photograph}: Marilyn Stafford

Earlier than lengthy she was friends with Piaf, who invited her to remain at her residence. Stafford briefly moved in with Piaf, Constantine and the quite a few waifs, strays and celebrities that the singer supplied a refuge for.

Subsequent door to her in one other attic bed room was the singer Charles Aznavour. In fact, they turned pals too. And, in fact, she took images of Piaf and Aznavour. Stafford’s images are endlessly stunning. Maybe by no means extra so than with Piaf, famend for her sepulchral fashion and tragic air. Stafford’s portraits of the Little Sparrow are all gentle and laughter.

She additionally befriended the founders of the Magnum Images collective, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David “Shim” Seymour. Cartier-Bresson taught her the quiet artwork of catching moments (he would sit together with his digicam on his knee, and when he noticed a photograph alternative he would barely carry his digicam to shoot), whereas Capa inspired her to turn into a battle photographer and instructed she take a job as Shim’s assistant. Stafford claimed she was a coward, that she hated carrying heavy gear and turned down the provide. Each Capa and Seymour had been subsequently killed in motion.

Stafford turned away from singing to deal with pictures. She would take the bus from the Left Financial institution to the top of the road the place she photographed folks within the slums of Boulogne-Billancourt. She may inform a narrative in a single body and discover the outstanding within the on a regular basis, whether or not it was a small lady carrying a seemingly enormous bottle of milk or a homeless lady asleep in a baby’s buggy.

In 1956, she married the British newspaper overseas correspondent Robin Stafford (her second husband) and travelled with with him for his work. In Tunisia, six months pregnant together with her daughter Lina, she took a collection of devastating images of Algerians in refugee camps. In a single image, a mom holds her child tenderly however her eyes are a thousand miles away. It bears a hanging resemblance to Dorothea Lange’s dustbowl photos. She despatched the images to her pal Cartier-Bresson, who in flip despatched them on to the Observer, which used two of the pictures on its entrance web page. It resulted within the Observer sending a reporter to cowl the story of the refugees.

Maybe my favorite Stafford images are of the Italian labourer and activist Francesca Serio, who turned the primary particular person to sue the Sicilian mafia after they killed her son. Serio’s face shines out of the blackest of backgrounds, each beatific and accusatory.

Marilyn Stafford, pictured in Lebanon in 1960.
Marilyn Stafford, pictured in Lebanon in 1960. {Photograph}: © Marilyn Stafford

As a vogue photographer, necessity turned the mom of invention. Stafford couldn’t address the technical hoo-ha of a studio shoot so she took fashions into the pure gentle of the actual world. Her photos are each impossibly glamorous and laugh-out-loud humorous. In a single, a stunning lady stands exterior the Louvre carrying a protracted white coat, with a brolly in a single hand, stilettos within the different, and her toes splayed at quarter to 4. Solely Stafford may have turned a Marilyn Monroe lookalike into Charlie Chaplin.

After she and Robin divorced in 1965, she moved to England with Lina and scrimped a dwelling as a contract photographer. Her movie star portraits of 60s icons corresponding to Twiggy, Sharon Tate and Lee Marvin are beautiful – fantastically framed, intimate and but one way or the other distant. Moderately than defining their topics, they go away you asking questions on them. She used her extra business work to subsidise humanitarian initiatives corresponding to journeys to India, the place she spent a month following prime minister Indira Gandhi, or a visit to Bangladesh to doc rape victims. This was the work that meant most to her.

She stated: “Though I very a lot loved taking pictures movie star portraits and vogue, I did it largely to have the ability to help my household and to self-fund my reportage work.”

The annual Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award was launched in her honour six years in the past by the not-for-profit social enterprise FotoDocument. It’s open to skilled feminine documentary photographers engaged on initiatives supposed to make the world a greater place.

Regardless of her excellent work, Stafford by no means turned a “title” throughout her profession. She stated that many editors (invariably male) pigeon-holed ladies as portrait photographers whereas she prided herself on being a jobbing photographer able to turning her eye to something. After working a vogue pictures company, she retired, nonetheless solely in her mid-50s.

For a few years she put pictures to the again of her thoughts and her negatives in shoeboxes beneath her mattress. There was a cheerful third marriage to João Manuel Viera (a tango fanatic and antifascist activist in Portugal throughout António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship, who predeceased her), a transfer to Sussex, involvement in poetry trails and a literary pageant, and Mandarin classes. Stafford by no means discovered herself wanting for hobbies.

Indira Gandhi speaking at mass rally in Kashmir in 1972.
Indira Gandhi talking at mass rally in Kashmir in 1972. {Photograph}: Marilyn Stafford

In her early 90s, native photographers and film historians started to take an curiosity in her work. There was an exhibition of her images on the Lucy Bell gallery near her residence in West Sussex, adopted by exhibitions in Toronto and London, and at last the complete retrospective. When Vanessa Thorpe reviewed the London exhibition for the Observer, she stated Stafford’s “images depict a century of change, from shifting gown shapes to the influence of world conflicts”.

Final Might, I interviewed her in entrance of an viewers on the retrospective in Brighton. Stafford was glamorous, cool and good. Her reminiscence was encyclopaedic and her mind razor-sharp. She danced into the gallery together with her strolling stick à la Fred Astaire, advised tales with such ardour she may have been telling them for the primary time, cursed the state of the world, and at occasions giggled like a young person. She segued from the hilarious to the harrowing and again once more.

After listening to her speak, the viewers appreciated her pictures much more. Now they understood that this inspirational physique of labor got here from an enormous, beneficiant coronary heart that by no means fairly misplaced hope.

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