Picture this: You’ve never really used a camera before, but there you are, zipping along in a car bound for Princeton, N.J., from New York City to take a portrait of the most famous physicist in the world: Albert Einstein.
That’s exactly what happened to Marilyn Stafford, and it marked the beginning of her unusual career.
Now 96, Ms. Stafford worked as a photographer j for more than 50 years, in a career that took her to India, Bangladesh, Tunisia, London and Paris, capturing cutting-edge prêt-à-porter fashion; the realities of urban poverty; and the impact of conflict.
Her greatest skill was portraiture: the singer Édith Piaf, the writer Italo Calvino, the actress Sharon Tate and the architect Le Corbusier were among the many she shot with her Rolleiflex camera. Yet, she didn’t achieve the same fame as her male counterparts like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.
Ms. Stafford’s photographs have been collected in a retrospective in England. “Marilyn Stafford: A life In Photography” runs from Feb. 22 to May 8 at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery (there is also an accompanying book). Together, Ms. Stafford’s photographs tell a vivid story of the 20th century. There are the changing fashions: in automobiles and clothing, skirts shortening to wisps, the appearance of décolletages, fishnets and stilettos.
Images of political shifts are also captured with images of crowds gathering before Indira Gandhi, the first and only female president of India, during a 1972 visit to Kashmir; and haunting portraits of Tunisian refugees from Algeria, who were forced to flee the War of Independence in 1958.
“I like to tell stories,” Ms. Stafford said. “And for me, taking a photograph is like telling a story. I tell it subconsciously, as I take the picture.”
Marilyn Gerson was born in Cleveland in 1925 as Marilyn Gerson. Her parents were a pharmacist father, and an antiques seller mother. She wanted to be an actress like Shirley Temple. She studied at the Cleveland Play House where Joel Gray and Paul Newman also took lessons.
Ms. Stafford would later use what she learned — in particular the Stanislavski technique — to immerse herself in the world of her subjects, and disappear completely. She came to New York in 1947 to pursue her dream of being on Broadway.
She also started experimenting with film at this time. Largely self-taught, her technique was purposefully haphazard, and she used the Russian film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein’s motto to “shoot, shoot, shoot; cut, cut, cut.” She would often work through several rolls of film to home in on her subject and get “the one.”
Though much of her career was carved out through steely determination, Ms. Stafford’s encounter with Einstein was kismet. In 1948, Ms. Stafford, then 24, tagged along with a film crew seeking Einstein’s views on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima. On the drive from Manhattan to the physicist’s home in Princeton, she was handed a 35 millimeter camera and was informed she would be the “stills lady.”
The resulting portrait shows the wizened physicist in a spectral blur — a foggy ghostliness caused by the technical imprecision of a novice, but nevertheless possessing the unmistakable aesthetic that defines a Stafford photograph. She realized that she had a new life after taking the photo.
After completing an apprenticeship with Francesco Scavullo (New York fashion photographer), Ms. Stafford moved to Paris in 1949. There she would spend a decade. There, her love for photography deepened, and she befriended Édith Piaf, Eleanor Roosevelt,Noël Coward and Bing Crosby.
Mulk Raj Anand was her friend and writer. He introduced her to photographers like Robert Capa or Henri Cartier Bresson who became her mentors.
Ms. Stafford was able to create a casual, intimate relationship with her subjects. This is evident with Gandhi, Ms. Stafford was able to spend a month with in 1972. It was a tumultuous period, during which Bangladesh was formed, and Ms. Stafford gained access to Ms. Gandhi’s home life, photographing her caring for her grandchildren and playing with her dog.
The series also captured Ms. Gandhi’s public persona: presenting a wounded soldier with a rose in hospital; receiving visitors in her garden; accepting marigold wreaths. “I found Indira to be very shy — we were shy with each other,” Ms. Stafford…