In 1948, Marilyn Stafford, a young aspiring actress in New York City, tagged along with two friends who traveled to Princeton to film a documentary about Albert Einstein.
As they pulled up in front of Einstein’s New Jersey home, one of the friends tossed a 35-millimeter camera to Stafford sitting in the rear seat. “Here. You take some stills while we film,” he told her.
Stafford was nervous — she had no experience taking photographs — but Einstein put them at ease.
“He was absolutely lovely,” she recalled. “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.”
The result, a series of grainy portraits of the theoretical physicist, was to mark the accidental start of a unique career for Ohio-born Stafford, though she had no idea at the time.
Over the decades, untold numbers of magazine readers would see her photographs, even if they had no idea she was the one behind the lens. Today, at 92, Stafford, a discreet and self-effacing woman, is being drawn out of obscurity because of her extraordinary portfolio that highlights social change in the 20th century, as well of some of her era’s biggest celebrities and world leaders.
The Lucy Bell Gallery, a few miles from her seaside home in West Sussex on Britain’s southern coast, organized an exhibition of her works this year in London; this followed an exhibition at the Alliance Francaise Toronto, a Canadian cultural institute. The Observer, reviewing the London exhibition, said the photographs “depict a century of change, from shifting dress shapes to the impact of world conflicts.”
“They are also proof,” it added, “of the long and varied life of a unique artist.”
The Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award was launched on International Women’s Day 2017 to encourage young female photographers.
Lucy Bell, owner of the gallery, said Stafford’s photographs are a time capsule.
“It is all really new material; things have haven’t been properly recorded before, but it’s only now people are beginning to sit up and take notice of her,” she said.
Stafford’s photographs are black and white, but her life could hardly have been more colorful.
Growing up in Cleveland, she was encouraged by her pharmacist father and mother to study drama and was one of the first members of the Cleveland Play House’s children’s group, the Curtain Pullers, along with Joel Grey and Paul Newman.
“It was the era of Shirley Temple — every parent wanted their kid to be Shirley Temple…. We all went to elocution lessons and learned to tap dance,” Stafford said.
“I grew up during the Depression, and from an early age I was aware of the bread lines and the great migrations of people as shown in the photographs of Dorothea Lange, which influenced me tremendously, and the suffering of refugees who’d fled Germany before the Second World War.”
The images of poverty and misery from that time haunted her and influenced her later work. “I wanted to bring attention to people who were suffering,” she said. “I felt that if only people knew about a situation, then something could be done to change it.”
At 23, still hoping to make a name on the stage, Stafford moved to New York but soon afterward traveled to Paris, where in 1949 she joined a cabaret ensemble singing at Chez Carrere, a classy dining club off the Champs-Elysées.
“The French capital was still recovering from the wartime Nazi occupation and full of U.S. expats with more arriving every day. If you had American dollars, which we changed on the black market, it was very cheap living in France at the time,” she said. “Looking back, it was a fantastically exciting time to be young and single.”
At Chez Carrere, Stafford met the wealthy and famous, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour.
“There were Paris nightclubs, and there was Chez Carrere. It was the place to be.”
She also met Bing Crosby.
“He was very ‘correct’ as the French say, but I knew he was fond of me. I was living at the time in a little ground-floor studio with another American girl, and he used to come along every Sunday morning having bought croissants from the local boulangerie. Bing was married, but we became good friends, and we stayed friends for many years,” she said.
Then the digital age of the 1980s arrived, and Stafford hung up her now-outdated cameras and retired into the shadows of the southern England seaside.
Serving tea and cakes at her pretty terraced home, she seems acutely embarrassed to be talking about herself. Few, if any, of her neighbors know of the extraordinary life and career of the small but elegant woman who now lives alone with her ginger tomcat, Josh.
“I stopped when it all became digital. I do still have my cameras, but I don’t really miss taking pictures. Every once in a while I see something and I think, I really wish I had my camera, but my focus is now on the [FotoReportage] Award,” she said. “It’s possible I might if I had the right project, but I think one needs a fresh eye, a fresh vision.”
She seems genuinely surprised anyone is interested in her and her many boxes of photos. With a shake of her head, she said, “Oh the wonderful memories I have. Life has been good to me.”
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