The extraordinary career of the photographer Marilyn Stafford began by accident with her first portrait: a grainy picture of a smiling Albert Einstein taken in his home in 1948.
Stafford, who has died aged 97, had never used a 35mm camera before and admitted she had “no idea what I was doing” as she accompanied two friends to interview the Nobel prizewinning physicist. “All I was aware of was that I had to focus and click the shutter,” she said.
“Albert Einstein was absolutely lovely. 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. It was all very understated.”
Stafford would go on – via a foray into singing at the same Paris cabaret as Édith Piaf – to capture key international events and personalities of the 20th century, amassing an exceptional portfolio that spanned more than 30 years of conflict, social issues, fashion, culture and celebrity.
Yet, until a few years ago little if anything was widely known of Stafford or her work. Most of her negatives were in shoe boxes under the bed or in cupboards at her home on the south coast of England. Others had been lost in house moves.
Whether due to the misogyny of the male-dominated newspaper industry, modesty or even a casual failure to fully appreciate the social and historical value of her own work, Stafford was well into her 90s before she began to receive the recognition she deserved. Even then she was surprised that anyone was interested in her pictures and the enthralling stories of those she had met and photographed.
As well as Piaf they included Bing Crosby, who took her to the Longchamp races and brought her croissants on Sunday mornings in Paris, Lee Marvin, who sang Wand’rin’ Star standing in his socks in her London living room, Noël Coward, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Aznavour, Indira Gandhi, Twiggy, Sharon Tate … the names kept coming.
In the 1950s, Stafford captured the nascent prêt-à-porter fashion movement in Paris, taking the models out of the studios and on to the streets, as well as portraying the grim reality of poverty in the slums around what is now the Bastille Opera House. Sometimes she combined the two, creating high-contrast black-and-white images of beautiful models in high-end fashion clothing juxtaposed with impoverished street children.
In 1960, four years after marrying the British journalist Robin Stafford, she travelled to Tunisia while six months pregnant to document the Algerian refugees feeling France’s aerial bombardment in the war of independence. Back in Paris, she showed the pictures to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who sent them to the Observer, which published two on its front page.
Marilyn was born in Cleveland, Ohio, where her pharmacist father, Maurice Gerson, and his wife, Dorothy (nee Soglovitz), had ambitions for her to be the next Shirley Temple. They enrolled her at the Cleveland Play House children’s theatre, where she studied acting along with Paul Newman and Joel Grey.
“Every parent wanted their kid to be the next Shirley Temple and every little girl wanted to be Shirley Temple. We all went to elocution lessons and learned to tap dance,” she said.
Growing up during the Great Depression, the images of breadlines, mass migrations and the misery of refugees who had fled Germany in the 30s by photographers such as Dorothea Lange haunted Stafford and influenced her later work.
“I wanted to bring attention to people who were suffering,” she told me when we first met in 2017. “I felt that if only people knew about a situation, then something could be done to change it.”
After the University of Wisconsin, aged 23, she moved to New York to make her name on the stage, but a few months after photographing Einstein, travelled to Paris with a girlfriend. “France was coming out of the war and there were a lot of foreigners in Paris including many expat Americans, so I got to meet lots of people. Looking back, it was a fantastic time. There was just so much energy.”
She sang at Chez Carrère, the classy dining club off the Champs Élysées where she met Piaf as well as the Magnum founders Robert Capa and Cartier-Bresson. She told Capa she wanted to become a photographer. “Before then, I had a Rolleiflex and I sometimes took casual photos but I really wasn’t thinking as a photographer.”
Cartier-Bresson let Stafford watch him while he worked, and Capa suggested that she join him documenting the war in Indochina, where he was later killed, or travel to war zones with his Magnum colleague David “Chim” Seymour, who was killed in Egypt. Stafford declined, and instead went into public relations. During a stint with a fashion company, in the late 50s, was asked to take pictures of a new trend: ready-to-wear.
After travelling to Italy, Lebanon and the US with Robin, the couple separated in the mid-60s: Stafford and their daughter, Lina, moved to London, where she worked for the Observer and other UK and international publications, including Vogue.
In 1972, Stafford spent a month following the Indian president Indira Gandhi after the war with Pakistan. In the 1980s she hung up her trusty Rolleiflex and retired as a photographer “to learn Mandarin”.
The former Fleet Street photographer Lynn Hilton said she had not heard of Stafford when she went to her home near Brighton to photograph her in 2017, and was astonished to discover her extraordinary career.
“She told all these wonderful stories about who she had photographed and what she had done in this matter-of-fact way as if it was all nothing … Then I saw all the extraordinary pictures she had taken; it seemed wrong that she had done so much but had been completely forgotten,” Hilton said.
In 2017 Stafford set up the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage award for female photographers.
Last year, the book Marilyn Stafford: A Life in Photography, was published, and a major retrospective was held at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.
Stafford was married and divorced twice, first to Joseph Kohn, second to Robin. In 2001 she married a third time, to João Manuel Viera, who predeceased her. She is survived by Lina, and by a grandson, Tenzin.
• Marilyn Jean Stafford (nee Gerson), photographer, born 5 December 1925; died 2 January 2023