Marilyn Jean Stafford: The Shutterbug Who Told Stories Through Images

Marilyn Jean Stafford (née Gerson; November 5, 1925 – January 2, 2023) was a remarkable British photographer known for her captivating visual narratives. Her journey through the lens took her from the United States to Europe and beyond, and her work graced the pages of newspapers and the walls of exhibitions, leaving an indelible mark on the world of photography.

Early Life and Wanderlust

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Marilyn Jean Gerson displayed artistic promise from an early age. At seven, she embarked on an acting journey, training with the prestigious Cleveland Play House. Her pursuit of the arts eventually led her to New York City, where she explored roles Off-Broadway and ventured into the world of early television.

Photography, however, entered her life serendipitously in 1948 when friends handed her a 35 mm camera during a documentary film interview with the iconic Albert Einstein. Armed with newfound curiosity, she began capturing the world around her through the lens.

In her quest for photographic experience, Marilyn joined forces with fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo, laying the foundation for her future endeavors.

A Parisian Sojourn and Pioneering Work

In December 1948, Marilyn set her sights on Paris. While pursuing her passion for singing at Chez Carrère, a dinner club off the illustrious Champs-Élysées, she serendipitously crossed paths with renowned war photographer and photojournalist Robert Capa.

Embracing the allure of photography, Marilyn explored the streets of Paris on the advice of another luminary, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Her distinctive approach was to capture everyday moments in a documentary style, emphasizing realism over opulence, a departure from the norm in fashion photography.

A Lifetime in Photography

Marilyn’s path continued to intertwine with the world of photography. In 1956, she married Robin Stafford, a British foreign correspondent for the Daily Express based in Paris. Her lens soon turned to pressing global issues as she embarked on a personal assignment to Tunisia in 1958 to document the plight of Algerian refugees fleeing the Algerian War’s devastation.

Her impactful photographs, showcased in The Observer, amplified the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. Marilyn Stafford’s portfolio expanded to include portraits of luminaries such as Indira Gandhi, Italo Calvino, and Sharon Tate, among others.

Awards and Recognition

In recognition of her unparalleled contributions to the world of photography, Marilyn received the prestigious Chairman’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the UK Picture Editors’ Guild Awards in 2020.

Personal Life and Legacy

Marilyn Jean Stafford’s personal life was marked by marriages to filmmaker Joseph Kohn, Robin Stafford, and João Manuel Viera. She shared her final years in the coastal town of Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex.

On January 2, 2023, at the age of 97, Marilyn Stafford bid farewell to the world she had so beautifully captured through her lens.

Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award

Marilyn Stafford’s dedication to storytelling through photography continues to inspire. The Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award, established on International Women’s Day in 2017, annually recognizes professional women photographers documenting pressing social, environmental, economic, or cultural issues. The award includes a £2000 prize and invaluable mentoring opportunities.

Publications and Exhibitions

Marilyn Stafford’s legacy is immortalized in her publications, including Silent Stories: A Photographic Journey through Lebanon in the Sixties and Marilyn Stafford: A Life in Photography. Her work has graced the walls of renowned institutions, from the Nehru Centre in London to the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, bearing witness to her enduring impact on the world of photography.

Through her lens, Marilyn Jean Stafford wove stories that transcended time and space, leaving behind a visual legacy that continues to inspire and enlighten.