Photographer to the stars Marilyn Stafford: ‘Einstein asked how my camera worked’

Marilyn Stafford's 'A Life in Photography' exhibition is at Brighton Museum until May 8 - David McHugh
Marilyn Stafford's 'A Life in Photography' exhibition is at Brighton Museum until May 8 - David McHugh

Marilyn Stafford, 96, is an American-born British photographer who found fame as a freelance photojournalist from the mid-1960s to 1980, when she retired. Covering both fashion and documenting turbulent events, her photographs have appeared in international newspapers and magazines. The famous people she has ­photographed include Edith Piaf, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, David Frost, Richard Attenborough and Twiggy. Today, she lives in Sussex with her cat, Minou.

How did your childhood influence your attitude to money?

I took money for granted, coming from a middle-class family in Cleveland, Ohio – although I grew up during the Depression and men would come to the door selling Brillo pads, while Jewish refugees came with embroidered ­tablecloths, because there were no jobs or money.

I had a younger sister. My father was a pharmacist who’d owned two drugstores (he lost one during the Depression). My mother was a housewife who in later years bought antiques she’d sell from our basement.

What were your first jobs?

As a teenager, I worked at Woolworths. While girls at the time became sales assistants or secretaries, becoming the next Shirley Temple was the great American dream of mothers. Our live-in maid would sit me on shop counters and make me go through my singing act. But if you didn’t have that curly hair, you didn’t make it.

My mother would put me to bed with my black, straight hair divided into patches and rolled up in rags to make it curly. When I was 10 the Cleveland Play House called for schools to select a child as a potential apprentice. I was selected.

To pay my tuition at an out-of-state university, my father helped me get a job with the telephone company. All calls were put on to a ticket and I had to sort out all these piles into the numbers they came from. After the first day I went bonkers, so my father got me a job in a war factory. I couldn’t get into university because I needed ­geometry, which I couldn’t pass. So I went to night school, where all these lovely men pushed me through, then to university where I majored in drama and English.

Marilyn Stafford, Lebanon 1960
Marilyn Stafford, Lebanon 1960

What is the best thing you’ve bought?

My first house, because it gave me the security of a home without paying all that rent. I came to England in the early 1960s. I was in a rental flat and the landlord wanted me out. I think you couldn’t evict people by law, so he helped me with the deposit to get me out.

Was your photography always commissioned?

Sometimes I’d visit people with friends and just photograph them. I met Lee Marvin in London at the home of a friend who was the screenwriter for The Dirty Dozen [1967], which he’d come to film. When I told him I’d never seen Paint Your Wagon [1969], he took off his boots and sang me Wand’rin’ Star.

Some were part of an assignment for magazines and newspapers. In 1958, I had two photographs on the front page of The Observer – my first front page. The Algerians were trying to get their independence from France and the French bombed a hospital on the border with Tunisia as refugees fled from their homes.

Nobody was talking about the refugees and I wanted to do something about it. In Tunisia, I made contact with the FLN, the liberation army, and they took me to the border, where I did those photographs. When I came back I showed them to a friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson [the French photographer], who sent them to The Observer. I was pregnant and my daughter was born prematurely because of the bumpy roads.

What was your first photo shoot?

In 1948 I was in New York and met some documentary film-makers who wanted to make a film on Einstein in which he’d speak out against atomic warfare. And they invited me to join them. In the back seat of the car I was handed a 35mm camera (which I’d never used or seen before) and told how to use it. They said: “Don’t worry. Just focus and click the shutter.” And I ­photographed Einstein. He asked the director: “How many feet per second does the film go through the camera?” The director explained and Einstein said: “Ah yes, now I understand.” By asking somebody for ­clarification, he was not so high and mighty that he thought he knew everything.

Do you still have the film?

No, the director took it. But I have the one original, a mounted print about 14in by 18in, which was given to me, and a couple of 8in by 10in head shots, the original prints. They’re rare. About five years ago a gallery owner said the big one was worth about £5,000.

Marilyn Stafford Albert Einstein - Marilyn Stafford
Marilyn Stafford Albert Einstein - Marilyn Stafford

How did you manage to photograph the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1972?

A big English magazine gave me a letter saying they were interested. They didn’t say they were going to publish it. And she agreed, which got me to India. When I got there, all my film was confiscated because they thought I was going to sell it. But Mrs Gandhi assigned somebody to be my keeper, who sorted it all out. That month was all on my own money. So money I earned from commissioned jobs I would spend doing stories I wanted to do, such as this.

How did you get into fashion photography?

When I came to London I went to an exhibition of a young French artist called Daniel Milhaud. At the exhibition I met Michel Arnaud, a French photographer, and we talked about covering these runway shows as a picture agency, so that newspapers and magazines wouldn’t have to pay photographers.

The agency was called ASA, which was the film speed we were using. But ASA was also Arnaud Stafford Associates. ASA went to Paris with one client, The Observer. So we had this funny ­little agency and gathered up many clients on the way. We covered fashion shows four times a year in London, Rome, Milan, Paris and New York, and we’d provide photographs to whoever wanted them. This meant that at other times of the year I’d do freelance picture stories that I had to pay for myself.

How do you encourage new talent?

I have an annual Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award for women photographers.

Stafford’s exhibition, Marilyn Stafford: A Life in Photography, at the Brighton Museum, East Sussex, runs until May 8