Marilyn Stafford: the photographer who captured Edith Piaf and Albert Einstein

Detail from a fashion shoot at Barbara Hulanicki's Biba boutique in Kensington (1970) - Marilyn Stafford
Detail from a fashion shoot at Barbara Hulanicki's Biba boutique in Kensington (1970) - Marilyn Stafford

Marilyn Stafford’s life reads like a join-the-dots of 20th century history – one that has taken her from 1930s Dust Bowl America, via postwar New York, 1950s Paris and Swinging Sixties London, to the West Sussex coast where she lives today, not far from her daughter, Lina. In between, she made forays to capture on camera the Algerian War of Independence, postcolonial India and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Born in a leafy suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1925, Stafford – who retired from photography at the age of 80 – recalls childhood afternoons spent leafing through the pages of her parents’ copies of Life, “gleaning that something was not right in the world, even if I couldn’t have explained why in words”. That magazine was her “first introduction to photography, to storytelling, and I think because I was already always ­wanting to act up as a kid, the two combined in some way and sub­consciously within me grew this need to tell stories”.

At first, she tried channelling that need into acting. Following a stint at a children’s theatre school in Ohio (where Paul Newman was a fellow alumnus), she studied drama at Wisconsin University, before heading to New York to pursue a career on Broadway. To help make ends meet, she took a job assisting the American fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo, where, besides picking up pins and sweeping the floor, she learned to mix darkroom chemicals and process film.

In 1947, she acquired a hand-me-down Rolleiflex and although she took to it at once, little she learned on the twin lens camera was of any use on her first photographic assignment the following year. While she was on the way to shoot Albert Einstein for some friends of hers who were making a film in protest against atomic warfare, the film’s director put a single-lens reflex camera into her hands, and told her: “This is what you’re going to use.”

“I was shocked, terrified,” Stafford recalls. “I had never used [an SLR] before. To be experimenting on the world’s greatest genius? But he was lovely.”

Albert Einstein (1948) “Einstein met us at the door wearing very casual clothes and took us into his lounge. As we were setting up, he asked the director how many feet of film went through the 16mm camera per second, and when the director explained, Einstein said: “Thank you very much; now I understand.” I thought that was pretty good – very humble. I have never tolerated people who think they know better than other people.” - Marilyn Stafford

By the time she accompanied a heartbroken friend on holiday to Paris two years later, Stafford was photographing regularly, and it took only a few days in the French capital for her to decide, “that I wanted to stay and have my say with my camera”.

To pay for her board in a small Left Bank hotel room, she sang in an ensemble at Chez Carrère, a dinner club off the Champs-Élysées. “It was very smart – the only place Princess Elizabeth was allowed to go when she came to Paris,” Stafford tells me. The future Queen of England was one of many famous figures among the clientele. While there, Stafford also met Eleanor Roosevelt, Noël Coward, Bing Crosby, Robert Capa and, through a fellow singer in the ensemble, Edith Piaf.

Montmartre (1960) “I never liked using studios. I used to get my feet caught in all the cables. Besides, these clothes were ready-to-wear, so they should be seen on the street. Having a big camera was rare in those days so kids would come out of nowhere to see what I was up to. I couldn’t resist putting them in the picture.” - Marilyn Stafford
Montmartre (1960) “I never liked using studios. I used to get my feet caught in all the cables. Besides, these clothes were ready-to-wear, so they should be seen on the street. Having a big camera was rare in those days so kids would come out of nowhere to see what I was up to. I couldn’t resist putting them in the picture.” - Marilyn Stafford

One day, the Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand introduced Stafford to Henri Cartier-Bresson who took her under his wing, and would often invite her along when he was out photographing. “I was a decoy of sorts, because people would look at me when I was next to him,” she tells me. “Not that he needed it. He was a good teacher because he would never say ‘do this’ or ‘do that’. Instead he would look at my photographs and suggest, ‘if you did this, this is the feeling you would get’.”

Algerian mother (1958) “Four years into Algeria’s fight for independence, the French strafed a Tunisian town near the Algerian border,” recalls Marilyn Stafford. “A lot of people had been escaping over that border, and the 80 dead included women and children. I contacted the liberation army, who took me to the border, where I took many pictures. I was five months pregnant, and this one, of an Algerian mother holding her baby, is particularly important.” - Marilyn Stafford

It was Cartier-Bresson who, in 1958, sent Stafford’s picture of an Algerian refugee to The Observer in London. Published on the front page, it launched her career in photojournalism. She was five months pregnant with Lina at the time.

With her husband Robin ­Stafford, a British foreign correspondent, she moved first to Rome, then Lebanon, then back to New York, photographing wherever she went. When Robin was posted to Moscow, the pair decided that, given the escalating Cold War, it wasn’t safe for Marilyn to go with him. Besides, she tells me, the marriage had not been happy for a while, so they separated and she moved with Lina to London, where she had friends.

Fleet Street in the mid-1960s was resolutely a man’s world – only a handful of women could be found working in journalism – and at first Stafford struggled to make a living. Fortunately, her friend, the ­Hungarian-British photojournalist Michael Peto, stepped in. “He was beyond generous,” she says. “He opened doors for me with a lot of newspapers, and even turned over some of the work he was doing for them to me.”

Biba Dress (1970) “This brown lace dress was one of [Biba founder] Barbara Hulanicki’s big-selling items. I took the picture in the Biba boutique on Kensington Church Street. It was slightly mad in there, but splendid. I think Barbara did a tremendous job of bringing couture to ordinary people. I had some of her clothes myself, but regrettably they went in a cull. I could shoot myself thinking about it.” - Marilyn Stafford

Stafford’s experience in fashion – as well as assisting Scavullo in New York, she had worked for the ­American photographer Gene Fenn in 1950s Paris – enabled her to spot a gap in the market and, with the French photographer Michael Arnaud, she set up an agency that covered the biannual round of fashion shows in New York, London, Paris and Milan.

“It was what kept me alive,” she says now. “I was battling this business of au pairs, jobs, a teenage child. It was hard. I was never a fashionista, I didn’t want to be a fashion photographer, but it allowed me to make the kinds of documentary photographs I wanted to make.”

It was her experience of balancing single motherhood with working on Fleet Street that inspired her to establish, in 2017, the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award for female photographers, which she still co-judges. “Women are traditionally the ones who take care of the children,” she says. “How do you do that and still go out and be a photographer, a foreign correspondent? It’s a constant battle, and one that I hope won’t always be as hard.”

Edith Piaf (1950) “When I lived in Paris, I sang at a dinner club off the Champs-Elysées. A young American who sang with us was earning money on the side translating songs into French, and through that he got to know Edith Piaf. They became lovers, and she used to collect him every night after work. She had just bought a huge house in the Bois de Boulogne, and seven or eight of us would go there for breakfast after the clubs closed. She was a remarkable lady.” - Marilyn Stafford

This month, Stafford is publishing a book of her best photographs, the planning for which was – given that century-spanning, world-vaulting career of hers – “a bit of a monumental task”. Though, at 96, she remains sharp as a tack, her eyesight is failing. It may seem a particularly cruel fate for a photographer, but when I ask if she is finding it hard, she brushes me off with an almost audible raising of her chin. “Photographers don’t grow old,” she says, “they just grow out of focus.”

Marilyn Stafford: A Life in Photography (Bluecoat Press, £32) is out now. A show of her pictures is at Farley Farm, Sussex, until Oct 31, then touring.

A version of this article also appeared in the RPS Journal, the magazine of the Royal Photographic Society. Details: