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Marilyn Stafford, a Rediscovered Photojournalist, Dies at 97

Marilyn Stafford’s journey from aspiring Broadway singer and actress to noted photojournalist and fashion photographer started with a drive to New Jersey and a spasm of fear.

One morning in 1948, Ms. Stafford, who was 23, was tagging along with two friends who were driving to the home of Albert Einstein in Princeton, N.J., to make a short documentary about him and his views, as one of history’s greatest physicists, on the dawning of atomic weapons. Ms. Stafford was asked to take stills during the car ride down by one of her friends. “I’d never used one before, and I went into a panic,” she recalled in a 2021 interview.

It turned out that there was nothing to be concerned about. As Einstein greeted his three friends at his door, he was dressed in baggy pants and a sweatshirt and seemed calm and gentle. Ms. Stafford began snapping away with her friends as Einstein sank in a floral-print seat near a fireplace.

One of her friends sent her prints from one of her rolls of film. One stood out. Although the shot of Einstein sitting was slightly blurry and out of focus, it captured him in a moment of unguarded wonder, perhaps even mournful.

Ms. Stafford would eventually give up her Broadway dreams to purchase a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera. She would go on to become a pioneering, but under-recognized fashion photographer and photojournalist. The Einstein photograph was a sign that she would specialize in piercing Hollywood stars, fashionistas, and world leaders’ celebrity armor and creating a narrative behind the image.

Her publicist, Nicola Jeffs, stated that Ms. Stafford passed away Jan. 2, at her Shoreham-by-Sea home on the south coast. She was 97.

“I like to tell stories,” Ms. Stafford said in an interview with The New York Times last year, “and for me, taking a photograph is like telling a story. I tell it subconsciously, as I take the picture.”

She never achieved anything comparable to the fame of masters from the 20th century like Irving Penn, Richard AvedonAnd Henri Cartier-Bresson. Her archive consisted largely of shoe boxes stuffed with photos under her bed for decades. Many of her works might have been lost to history but for a chance encounter with Nina Emett, a photographer curator, at a gallery show in Sussex in England when Ms. Stafford was in the 90s.

Ms. Emett spent the next several years bringing Ms. Stafford’s work back into the public eye, culminating last year in “Marilyn Stafford: A Life In Photography,” a much-publicized retrospective that Ms. Emett curated with Ms. Stafford’s daughter, Lina Clerke, in Brighton, England, and an accompanying monograph.

“Working in this male-dominated field against the gender expectations of her time, Marilyn elevated social concerns that were ignored or underrepresented by mainstream media,” Helen Trompeteler, a British photography writer and curator and a friend of Ms. Stafford’s, wrote in an email. “Her exceptional archive provides a unique insight into 20th-century history and reflects her lifelong advocacy for women’s rights and representation.”

Ms. Stafford was a freelance journalist based in Paris in 1952 and London later. She documented the poor in Paris and the struggles of rape victims from India, as well the refugees from the Algerian War of Independence from France in the 1950s.

She preferred to capture the famous in candid, intimate moments at home, even when photographing them. Over the years she produced richly expressive portraits of film luminaries (Lee Marvin, Sharon Tate, Richard Attenborough and Alan Bates); era-defining models (Twiggy, Joanna Lumley); musicians (Donovan, Édith Piaf, with whom she briefly lived in Paris) and public intellectuals (the architect Le Corbusier, the writer Italo Calvino).

1972: Ms. Stafford was a shadow for the Prime Minister for a month. Indira GandhiIndia, capturing her in quiet moments at her home with her grandchildren, dog, and in public moments like visiting soldiers who were wounded in the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971.

Her fashion photography, which began in the mid-1960s and was continued until today, coincided with the rise in ready-to-wear which made it possible for the masses to see the work of couture designers. But even when shooting for haute fashion magazines like Vogue, she brought a street-photographer’s taste for the authentic, posing models in Chanel and Givenchy, for example, in front of graffiti-strewn walls of Paris. She was delighted, she told The Times, to be called “a reverse snob” by the fashion editor of Le Figaro.

“I was never interested in studio work,” Ms. Stafford said in a 2018 interview with Photomonitor, a photography site, “because my real feeling was out in the world on a documentary and storytelling basis, rather than just photographing the clothes.”

Marilyn Jean Gerson was the eldest daughter of Maurice Gerson (a pharmacist) and Dorothy (Soglovitz) Gerson (an antiques seller), and was born in Cleveland on Nov. 5, 1925.

She studied at the Cleveland Play House as a youngster. But she became aware of human suffering during the Great Depression through documentary photography, such as Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrant families escaping the Dust Bowl.

“From an early age, I was aware that horrible things could happen,” she said in a 2021 interview with Digital Camera World, a photography magazine. “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.”

Ms. Stafford studied English, drama, and the University of Wisconsin for a while before moving to New York in 1946 to pursue her stage career. As an assistant to the fashion photographers, she managed to make ends meet. Francesco Scavullo. She moved to Paris with a friend in 1949. It would be her home for over a decade.

Landing a coveted singing gig at a dinner club off the Champs-Élysées called Chez Carrère, Ms. Stafford befriended entertainers like Noël Coward, Maurice Chevalier and Piaf as well as giants of photojournalism like Cartier-Bresson and the combat photographer Robert Capa, who were among the founders of Magnum Photos.

Ms. Stafford stated to Mr. Capa that her singing voice was deteriorating and she was looking for a new career path. He suggested she work as an assistant for another Magnum founder and combat photographer. Robert SeymourChim, was a professional nickname for. Ms. Stafford didn’t want to risk her life in war zones, Ms. Jeffs stated in an email. Instead, she went into fashion public relations. (Mr. Capa was killed after stepping on a landmine while covering First Indochina War in 1954. Mr. Seymour was also killed by an Egyptian sniper while covering Suez crisis two years later.

However, Ms. Stafford would soon travel to trouble spots all over the globe with Robin Stafford, her husband. Robin Stafford was a foreign correspondent for The Daily Express in Britain. She married her husband in 1958 after a brief marriage with Joseph Kohn, a filmmaker.

She was six months pregnant when she went with Mr. Stafford to Algeria on an assignment to cover the war. Ms. Stafford considered this trip to be a work assignment. She captured harrowing images of Algerian refugees in Tunisia. “Nobody seemed concerned about the refugee crisis that was unfolding,” she said in the Times interview last year.

After returning to Paris, she sent her photographs to Mr. CartierBresson. He selected the best photos and sent them to The Observer (another British newspaper). Two of her photos were published on the front page. One was of a refugee mother who is covered in dirt and nursing her child. These photos helped to raise awareness about the crisis.

The Staffords settled in Rome, Beirut, and New York for a time. Ms. Stafford divorced her husband in 1965. She moved to London to co-found an agency that specialized in fashion. This was partly to finance her photojournalistic work. Fashion “has its fun side,” she told Photomonitor, “so that balances my serious side, if you will.”

Her daughter and a grandson survive her. Her third husband, João Manuel Viera, whom she married in 2001, died in 2016.

In 2017, she founded The Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage AwardFotoDocument, a non-profit organization that supports social and environmental photography around the globe, collaborated with us.

Ms. Stafford took a retirement in the 1980s to continue her studies in Mandarin, write poetry, and support human rights projects. Perhaps her razor-sharp photographic vision lost a little clarity. “Many years ago,” she said, “a photographer in New York told me, ‘Photographers don’t grow old, they just grow out of focus.’”

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