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Pioneering photographer Marilyn Stafford

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Photographer Marilyn Stafford trailblazed her way through the photography world, beginning by snapping Albert Einstein followed by a career revolutionising fashion photography and press photography.

On International Women’s Day in March 2017 Nina Emett, Founding Director of arts organisation FotoDocument, announced a new photographic award for women documentary photographers. The Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award, to be granted to a female documentary photographer for work addressing an important social, economic, cultural or environmental issue, was named after one of the world’s greatest 20th century documentary photographers who, after a career spanning street scenes, fashion, and portraiture, as well as some of the most famous names – and moments – in 20th century history, now lives in Shoreham-by-Sea.

Marilyn Stafford, 2020, with thanks to Julia Winckler

Born in Ohio, USA, Marilyn Stafford originally had her sights set on a career on stage rather than behind the lens.  After studying drama at Wisconsin University, she found herself in New York in the 1940s, hoping to find work on Broadway.  Instead, she found her first camera and an invitation to photograph Albert Einstein as a favour to friends who were making a film about him.  Remembering that she was given a quick lesson on how to use the camera in the journey on the way to Einstein’s house, Stafford told the Los Angeles Times in 2017: ‘He met us at the door and there was really no fuss. He was dressed in baggy pants and a sweatshirt. He was completely at ease and made us feel the same. My friends filmed him, he talked and I snapped.’

And so, although Stafford probably didn’t know it at the time, her photographic career began.

Further steps were made in early 1950s Paris where Stafford was singing at a supper club near the Champs Elysees. Here Stafford met luminaries including Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Aznavour, Bing Crosby, and Edith Piaf, whose house she would often find herself for breakfast after a night singing in the club.  Importantly, she also met Robert Capa, the war photographer and photojournalist, and street-photography pioneer, Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Both encouraged and supported her talent.

Soon she was taking commissions from big-name French fashion houses, photographing haute couture collections and the new rising ready-to-wear designers.  To this Stafford brought great inventiveness when, instead of sticking to the norm and photographing the models static in opulent surroundings, she placed them on the street, active and moving in urban environments, part of a story.

One particular photo of the time shows a model in a Chanel suit crossing the road outside the Louvre, another has a model in a white coat with a pair of high-heels casually swinging from her hand, sending up the seriousness of fashion photography. This approach was new and attention grabbing and paved the way for the grittier and more photo-documentary direction that fashion photography would take later in the twentieth century.

With her background growing up in Depression era America in her mind, Stafford also took an interest in photographing Parisian working-class neighbourhoods, including areas close to the Bastille and the suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt in the shadow of the Renault car plant. With both neighbourhoods soon falling prey to gentrification, Stafford’s vital and dynamic images, freezing in time a long lost area of narrow streets and open doorways, of children playing with balloons and swinging on lamp-posts, are the only remaining traces of this part of the city’s history.

Children playing in the Cite-Lesage-Bullourde, Paris, 1950s, with thanks to photographer Marilyn Stafford

In 1958 Stafford, now married to a British journalist, started to document the plight of Algerian refugees who, displaced by France’s ‘scorched earth’ aerial bombardment of their country during their war of independence, had sought refuge on the Tunisian border.  When two of her images showing women and babies at a refugee camp were published on the front page of The Observer newspaper on March 30th 1958 under the headline, ‘From Terror to a Sanctuary of Tents’, it shed light on a humanitarian crisis that many people knew little about.

Moving to Rome and then to Beirut, Stafford made a series of work featuring life in remote Lebanese villages.  This was later collected in the 1998 book ‘Silent Stories: A Photographic Journey Through Lebanon in the Sixties’.

In the mid 1960s, Stafford and her daughter moved to London where her work was frequently published in The Observer and other big name newspapers, magazines and the BBC.  As a rare woman on Fleet Street at the time, Stafford helped to open the door for future women press photographers.

In 1972 Stafford went to India where she was given permission to follow and photograph Indira Gandhi, herself a pioneer as the first – and as yet only – female prime minister of India for a month.  Striking images from this remarkable series show Gandhi face-on, mounting a plane with a solemn crowd behind her, her expression steely and purposeful.  Another shows her laughing at home as she plays with her grandchildren.  Stafford was to visit India several times afterwards, photographing tribes little known outside the country.

Having retired at the onset of digital photography, Stafford now lives in Shoreham-by-Sea and focuses her energy on nurturing and giving opportunities to a new generation of socially engaged women who want to bring important stories to the world’s attention through their work through the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award.

Recent years have seen a timely resurgence of interest in Stafford’s work.  In 2013 a retrospective of her work was held in Arundel Museum, as well as an exhibition, ‘Indira and her India’ at the Nehru Centre in London.  In March 2017, photographer and senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, Julia Winckler, who had fallen in love with Stafford’s street images after coming across them in a cafe in Shoreham, curated an exhibition of her work of the now lost districts of Paris ‘Photographic Memories – Lost Corners of Paris: The Children of Cite Lesage-Bullourde and Boulogne-Billancourt, 1949 – 50’ at the Alliance Francaise, Toronto.

Later in 2017, ‘Marilyn Stafford Stories in Pictures 1950s and 1960s’ was held at the Lucy Bell Gallery in St Leonards and Art Bermondsey in London. The following year ‘Marilyn Stafford – Fashion Retrospective 1950s – 1980s’ was held in Hull, at the Lucy Bell Gallery, and a portrait exhibition of her work, curated by Nina Emett, was exhibited at London’s After Nyne Gallery.

On 9th March this year Stafford was presented with the prestigious annual Award for Lifetime Contribution to Photography by the UK Picture Editors Guild.

This April, Julia was curating an extended exhibition of Marilyn Stafford’s Parisian street photographs in the Sorbonne in Paris, uniting, for the first time, the photographer with one of the former resident of the Cité, and returning the photographs to Paris where they were made 70 years ago.  This is now being postponed.

Stafford has published two books of photographs, Silent Stories: A Photographic Journey Through Lebanon in the Sixties (1998), and Stories in Pictures: A Photographic Memoir 1950 (2014) of Paris in the 1950s.

The 2017 winner of her FotoReportage Award was Delhi-based Rebecca Conway for her project ‘Valley of the Shadow’ based on the treatment of civilian trauma in Indian-controlled Kashmir.  The 2018 winner was Ozge Sebzeci from Turkey for her project ‘Divorced at 15’ which focuses on the marrying and divorcing of displaced Syrian refugee children in Anatolia.  The 2019 winner has just been announced as Anna Filipova, for her work, ‘Research At the End of the World’, which focuses on international scientific research taking place in the Arctic region on climate change.  The Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award 2020 opened its Call for Submissions on 12 March 2020 in celebration of International Women’s Day 2020.

For more information and to submit, please visit:

With grateful thanks to Marilyn Stafford and Julia Winckler

Written by social historian Louise Peskett