Work of pioneering Sussex photographer recalled

An exhibition showcasing decades of archive photography by Shoreham-based photographer Marilyn Stafford is up and running at Farleys House & Gallery until October 31.

Indira Gandhi boarding plane, New Delhi, 1972. © Marilyn Stafford
Indira Gandhi boarding plane, New Delhi, 1972. © Marilyn Stafford

Spokeswoman Nicola Jeffs said: “The first ever retrospective exhibition of US-born Sussex-based photographer Marilyn Stafford (b1925), now based in Shoreham, encompasses the most comprehensive display of the photographer’s work to date. Works come from an international archive spanning four decades and include celebrity portraits, fashion shoots, street photography, humanitarian stories and newspaper reportage.

“This exhibition, A Life in Photography, will tour institutions in the UK between August 2021 and November 2022, providing a reflective and engaging look at a period of 20th century history through the photographer’s unique gaze. It will feature many of the stories from her career, which remain untold, with images never seen before by the public.”

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A Life in Photography, curated by Nina Emett in collaboration with Stafford’s daughter Lina Clerke, will be on display at Farleys House & Gallery (Chidingly) in the autumn of 2021, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (Brighton) in the spring of 2022, and Dimbola Museum & Galleries (Isle of Wight) in the summer of 2022.

At Brighton Museum & Art Gallery the exhibition will also include a range of ephemera from Stafford’s archive, recordings of her speaking about her life and work and an additional hanging of silver gelatin framed prints. An accompanying retrospective book of her work Marilyn Stafford: A Life in Photography will be available from from October 2021, including an essay by Jennifer Higgie.

As Nicola explains: “Marilyn Stafford’s photography career got off to a remarkable start when she was invited, as a young woman, to take stills of Albert Einstein. Since then, she has accumulated an eclectic body of work, spanning from 1948-1980, including further portraits of famous and influential figures such as Edith Piaf, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mulk Raj Anand, Indira Gandhi, Albert Finney, Twiggy and Joanna Lumley. She has also photographed many ordinary people like the illiterate Sicilian peasant woman, Francesca Serio, who took the Mafia to trial for murdering her son.

“Stafford has also engaged in street photography, mainly in the 1950s, documenting the Parisian children of the Cité Lesage-Bullourde neighbourhood living in slum housing conditions as well as the bustling, and sometimes downtrodden, street life of Boulogne-Billancourt.

“Stafford has also witnessed some significant, and sometimes turbulent, periods of modern social and political history. She photographed Algerian refugees in Tunisia fleeing the Algerian War of Independence in 1958 which gained her front page of the Observer; she captured Lebanon in the 1960s during a time of peace before civil war would ravage the country a decade later which was later published by Saqi books; she created a unique and intimate documentary about Indira Gandhi, India’s first and only woman Prime Minister, during India’s intervention in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

“Alongside her humanitarian focused photography, Stafford took advantage of opportunities open to her as a female photographer, including commissioned portraits and fashion runways for British, American and international newspapers and magazines, as well as co-running her own fashion photography agency. Her work has been included on magazine and newspaper front covers, including the Observer. In 2020, Stafford was awarded the Chairman’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the UK Picture Editors’ Guild.”

Marilyn said: “I think of myself as a storyteller, speaking through the lens of my camera. I have always endeavoured to find a way to bring awareness to the public eye, to tell stories that are socially relevant and to create change for the better. As a young, impressionable child of the 1930’s Great Depression in the US, I witnessed poverty-stricken people and early holocaust refugees coming to our door, selling everything from steel wool cleaning pads to fine embroidered linens. I also remember seeing Dorothea Lange’s powerful photographs of migrants fleeing the severe drought in the Dust Bowl states and I understood there and then how photography could make a difference. During my life I have lived through periods of extraordinary change and have been able to capture both trivial and momentous events of my time. I have been very fortunate during my life to have had good friends and also good luck along the way.”