Marilyn Stafford / Silent Echoes – Portraits from the Archive
October 2018 Interviewed by Anna McNay
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, in 1925, Marilyn Stafford never intended to become a photographer, yet her career is one of the most distinguished there could be. Having started out almost accidentally photographing Albert Einstein – for friends who were shooting a film and asked her to help them out – she moved to Paris, where her mentors included Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, and where, alongside commissioned fashion photography, she also developed her documentary skills, photographing children living in one of the city’s worst slums (later bulldozed to make way for Paris Opera Bastille). Her onward path took her from Lebanon to India – where she spent several weeks with Indira Gandhi – and later to the London of the Swinging Sixties, where, juggling the challenges of single motherhood, she worked as one of very few women photographers on Fleet Street. Since retiring from photography in 1980, Stafford has lived in the sleepy town of Shoreham-by-Sea on the south coast of England. She is far from absent from the photographic scene, however, and, in 2017, set up the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award, facilitated by FotoDocument and now also supported by Olympus, to help professional female photographers around the world with documentary photo projects addressing social, environmental, economic and cultural issues.
When I visit Stafford at her home, she is on a high having just found out that she’s received an Arts Council grant, and she’s busy preparing for a run of three exhibitions in quick succession – this is retirement?! – as an invited guest at the Hull International Photography Festival; at Lucy Bell Gallery, Hastings; and at the After Nyne Gallery, London. Busy looking through boxes of old prints and negatives, she is putting together a selection of portraits for the latter exhibition, ‘Silent Echoes – Portraits from the Archive’, but, as she says, “these will not just be head shots of famous people”. By sharing the stories behind some of the key images from across her career, Stafford gives some insight into what, for her, makes a portrait and what has driven her throughout her career as a photographer.
AMc: It can’t be an easy task, selecting which images you want to include, when you have so many to choose from.
MS: It certainly isn’t. You will see, on my table there, a big box of gubbins. That’s the selection from which I have to choose. Part of the Arts Council grant is actually going to help with archiving some of my material properly. Until now, it’s just been in shoeboxes and plastic bags under the bed, and the cat has sat all over it. Now it’s going to begin to be salvaged and scanned so that we have it digitally safe. It’s not all of my work, though, as I gave a lot of things away.
AMc: Tell me about some of the images that you have selected thus far and what their significance is for you.
MS: Well, firstly, I will have a photograph of a Lebanese bride sitting on her throne. There is a custom in the Beqaa Valley, for the bride to sit on a raised platform on her wedding day. She has to weep because she’s leaving her parents’ home. The women of the village come and sing to her to cheer her up. She sits there all day. The photograph was on the cover of a book that I did in 1960, when I lived in Lebanon. It’s a portrait, but it’s not of someone I love, someone you know, or someone even I know or knew.
AMc: There will be images of people you did know though, and people I know – or will recognise – too.
MS: Yes. I will have Indira Gandhi in there, of course, because I spent a long time with her, photographing her. I wanted to do a story about a day in the life of Indira Gandhi. On a freelance basis, I went out to India, but I practically just got there when the short war with Pakistan, which created Bangladesh, began. So it was a whole new story. I did photograph her at home with her family – with the children and Christmas dinner – but I ended up staying with her for close to a month, accompanying her as she travelled around India speaking to army officers and soldiers, visiting hospitals, and doing what one does during a war, I suppose. At one point, I had a thought sitting in an aeroplane with Mrs Gandhi’s secretary, that it might be fun to do a book called Seeing India with Indira. He took it back to her and she liked the idea. But I’d left my daughter in London with the family of a school friend and I was getting all these letters from her asking when I was coming home and complaining that she didn’t like the food. So I thought, “Gosh, now what do I do?” And I went back to the UK, planning to return to India again soon, but Mrs Gandhi got killed before I could. Of course, when I got home, my delightful teenager said, “Back so soon?” Typical. But I don’t regret coming back, because I’m a mother first and then a photographer. If I couldn’t do the pictures, then I didn’t take the assignment. Or, at times, I did take assignments and, if I had nobody to take care of her, she was packed in the back seat of the car and came along too. But those were just one-day things in London – you can get through that. On an away assignment, you worry, which is why I wanted to establish the photo award – I thought there must be some way of offering a helping hand to other women photographers like me.
AMc: You have photographed a lot of strong women.
MS: Yes, and I don’t know if you know the portrait of the Italian lady? I lived in Rome for a year and I was very friendly with the Italian painter and writer, Carlo Levi. He had been active in the resistance against Mussolini and was caught and exiled to the south of Italy. Usually people were killed, but he wasn’t. He wrote a book called Christ Stopped at Eboli, which depicted the poverty – and real sadness – of southern Italy at the time. He and I were going to do a book of photographs and stories about Italian intelligentsia, writers, painters, sculptors, and so on. One day he called me and said that he wanted to bring somebody to my house. He brought along this little lady dressed in black, widowed, obviously, who was an illiterate Sicilian peasant, who had earned her living picking peas, grapes and olives on the estate of a Sicilian Principessa. I don’t think she was married but had been deserted by the father of her son. When he became an adult, this son had joined the then new Socialist party of that region. The Principessa didn’t like that, so she called in the local mafia and they threatened the son and he told his mother. One day, she found him dead with the markings of the mafia. She went to the Socialist party and said she wanted to do something about it, and she actually brought the mafia to trial. She was supported by a lot of the Italian intellectuals, as well as the Socialist party, and Levi brought her to my house because he said she had to be in the book. So I did photographs of her. Her name was Francesca Serio. She was called ‘the Italian Antigone’. Ultimately she brought the mafia to trial in Palermo and I was invited to go to the trial. I was trembling so much I couldn’t load my camera properly and none of the pictures came out. It happens. You feel like shooting yourself, but never mind. Anyway, there they were, all the mafiosi in the cage, and this little old lady dressed in black, accusing them. And she won the case. However, they brought it back to trial, and they won the second time around. Not long after that, they shot the guy who did the killing so that he couldn’t talk. They never touched her though because it would have been proof. She lived to be a ripe old age. She is very much a legend in some parts of Italy. I was very honoured to photograph her.
AMc: You came into photography with a bang, taking a portrait shot for some friends of Albert Einstein. Will that be included in the exhibition?
MS: It will have to be, of course. He was my very first portrait and I didn’t even know I was doing it. It was a surprise to me, because, as you probably know, my original plan in life was to be an actress. I’d gone to New York after university and my hope was to get a job in theatre. Although I did do some things, I never made Broadway, but did have these friends who took me with them to photograph Einstein. That was really a very honoured experience, and it was my first portrait, really. I still have the 1948 print.
AMc: From there, you went into fashion photography, which was also a significant part of your life.
MS: Yes, but I was never interested in studio work, because my real feeling was out in the world on a documentary and storytelling basis rather than just photographing the clothes. When I started to take photographs in Paris, my feeling was to take them out into the street, because that’s where people lived. They didn’t live in a studio. I appreciate studio photography absolutely, and I honour the good lighting and the craftsmanship of a good studio picture, but it isn’t my feel. There will, however, be some fashion images in the exhibition: a picture of Twiggy, and a picture of Joanna Lumley when she was modelling for Jean Muir, which was very elegant.
At heart I’m mainly a documentary photographer and I am much more interested in photographing situations that involve human experiences. I like fashion because it has a creative side and it’s always wonderful to see beautiful workmanship, beautiful fabrics, beautiful designs, but I don’t like the fashion scene as such. But it’s a big business and you have to take it seriously. And it has its fun side. So that balances my serious side, if you will, which is photographing refugees and tribal people and portraits of people who are not in fashion, more on the international stage, including Indira Gandhi.
– Marilyn Stafford was interviewed by Anna McNay
For further viewing:
Marilyn Stafford: A Fashion Retrospective will be exhibited 5th – 28th October at Hull International Photography Festival and 27th October – 17th November at Lucy Bell Gallery, Hastings.
Marilyn Stafford: Silent Echoes – Portraits from the Archive will be exhibited 17th – 30th October at After Nyne Gallery, London.