Marilyn Stafford was largely unknown until her 90s, when she had a belated and glorious brush with fame. Stafford, who has died aged 97, became celebrated in the way she should have been for decades. She was given a major retrospective at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, published a magnificent book of her photographs, was interviewed by newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, and finally got to tell her stories.
And what stories. Albert Einstein, Indira Gandhi, Charles Aznavour, Édith Piaf, Henri Cartier-Bresson … this tiny, unassuming American woman reeled off names like a grocery list. Stafford’s portfolio covered all life with compassion, humour and style. She was equally at home documenting Algerian refugees who had fled France’s scorched earth policy as she was shooting fashion or celebrity portraits.
She could have been a film star or distinguished chanteuse – and almost was. Stafford grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, during the great depression. Her father was a pharmacist who had emigrated from Latvia as a young boy, her mother a beauty who dreamed of being a “lady”. Her parents hoped she would be the next Shirley Temple, and between the ages of 10 to 18 she trained at the Cleveland Play House, alongside Paul Newman and Joel Grey. When I interviewed her last year, she described herself as “probably the only Stanislavski photographer around”.
Stafford was sassy and naturally funny. With a fabulous deadpan, she told me how her mother had died “of vanity” at the age of 103. Stafford would have made a superb character in The Golden Girls.
A mother and children refugees in a camp near the bombed village of Sakiet along the Algerian frontier. First published in the Observer in March 1958. Photograph: Marilyn Stafford
After graduating from Wisconsin University, she moved to New York where she played a few cameos in off-Broadway productions. But she struggled as an actor, and found her way into photography though a fluke.
In 1948, two friends were making a documentary about a physicist at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. They invited Stafford to go along with them, and asked if she would take his photograph. The man was Albert Einstein.
It was her first commissioned portrait and she had never used a 35mm camera before. She was terrified, but you wouldn’t have known from the results. In one picture, Einstein looks wonderfully crumpled and curious (he had just asked how many feet per second went through the documentary camera). In the other, he is smiling. “I’d like to think he was smiling …….