Stephanie ‘Steffi’ Graham, photographer who saw hope in the city, dies

Stephanie "Steffi" Graham worked with nonprofits, once co-owned a Harborplace shop, and began her career at Seventeen and Harper’s Bazaar magazines.
Stephanie "Steffi" Graham worked with nonprofits, once co-owned a Harborplace shop, and began her career at Seventeen and Harper’s Bazaar magazines. (HANDOUT)

Stephanie “Steffi” Graham, a photographer recalled as seeing hope in Baltimore’s troubled neighborhoods, died of cancer Thursday at Gilchrist Hospice Towson. The Canton resident was 75.

Born Stephanie Finberg in New York City, she was the daughter of Dr. Edna Miller, a dentist who became an advertising executive, and Alfred Finberg, a food chemist and entrepreneur.


Known as Steffi, she was a 1962 graduate of Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York where she was active in drama and musical productions. She earned a bachelor of fine arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she majored in illustration. She later studied photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“She was down-to-earth, sweet and talented,” said Linda Koban, a friend. “She grew up in New York in a sophisticated setting. Her best friend was [playwright] Arthur Miller’s daughter. After moving here, she totally adopted Baltimore.”


She began her career in the layout and design departments at Harper’s Bazaar and Seventeen magazines. She also designed album covers for classical music recordings.

While she lived on the same street in Brooklyn, New York, as her future husband, Andrew Jay Graham, they did not meet until both attended a party.

“One thing led to another and we were in love,” said her husband. “We dated in college and later lived in Brooklyn Heights.”

When Mr. Graham became a law clerk to U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II, they moved to Baltimore and initially lived at 2907 N. Calvert St. After the clerkship was over, they returned to Brooklyn’s Park Slope in New York City.


“We concluded we liked Baltimore more than New York and rented at Bonnie Ridge before we bought and reconditioned an old house in Mount Washington,” Mr. Graham said. They later moved to Canton.

Ms. Graham went on to co-found and co-own Primrose Prints, a women’s and children’s clothing store. It was among the first Harborplace tenants.

Over the years Ms. Graham moved from painting to photography.

“Painting was solitary and photography was social and collaborative,” her husband said. “Her photographs were not only art, but were also deeply personal, and she stayed in touch through life with the people whom she photographed.”

In the 1990s she was a photographer with the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks and the Parks and People Foundation.

Gary Letteron, recalled her work in underserved neighborhoods and how she befriended children at a garden at Mount and Fayette streets in Southwest Baltimore.

“Steffi was a natural. She was fabulous with kids and they loved her," he said. "She was cheery and soft-spoken and when her photos were finished, they had a natural quality. The kids were not even looking at the camera.”

A 1994 Sun story described her exhibition, Baltimore Greening Baltimore, at the City Hall Gallery. “Anyone who’s written off Baltimore as a dying city should take a look [at her photography]. It documents the transformation of trash-strewn lots and alleys in neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester, Greenmount and Pigtown into verdant oases."

Ms. Graham spent three summers chronicling the initiative, a partnership that brought interns from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies together with community groups, volunteers and the city’s parks department, as well as the Parks and People Foundation.

"It became a sort of a passion," Ms. Graham said in the article, which said it was completed solely on volunteer time. “The show allows public access to parts of the city that are often feared and dismissed.”

Erika Svendsen, a friend and collaborator, said: “She made you see things you often did not realize — those things were often beautiful, heroic and good. Steffi drew out the best in people and if she had a camera in her hand, she captured it for them to see.”

Said a friend, Marilyn Ogburn: “She had impeccable taste and was wonderfully dressed. The forestry project was very important to her. She was always very engaged with life.”

Ms. Graham also had photo assignments at the Preservation Hall Jazz Band Children’s Program in New Orleans, the Maryland State Police Department, the U.S. Forest Civil Rights Program and the Baltimore Outreach Service’s Culinary Arts Program in South Baltimore. Ms. Graham did photography for its cookbook.

Ms. Graham, who loved animals and took portraits of dogs for and often with their owners.

“Her photos were wonderful portraits of dogs, because she understood and loved their companionships with people,” her husband said.

“The Grahams as a couple were adorable," said Baltimore Circuit Judge Julie R. Rubin. "Steffi was a zesty spirit. She had a quality about her, a motherly feel and when she was near you felt everything is going to be OK. She was a breath of fresh air. She was everyone’s enthusiastic supporter and a giver of encouragement. She had her hand on your back.

“She had certain reserve to herself. She was never loud and never drew attention to herself. She was sweet ray of sunshine. She had her opinions and but her style was quiet. She was a dynamic woman."

Philip Andrews, an attorney, said: “She was one of the most interesting people you’d ever meet. A conversation with Steffi was always a delight. She was a wonderful presence at our law firm’s holiday parties. She could could speak on art, politics or grandchildren.”

Ms. Graham also worked for real estate developers at the building that is now the Mount Washington Whole Foods and the former Gunther Brewing plant in Canton.

She was a member of the Women’s Giving Circle. Fluent in French, she often visited the Alsace region in France where her daughter-in-law’s family lives. She also gardened at a weekend home in St. Michaels.

A visitation will be held from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday at the Ruck-Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

In addition to her husband of 53 years, the co-founder of the Kramon & Graham law firm, survivors include a son, Dr. Ethan A. Graham of New York City; a brother, Charles Finberg of Cuttingsville, Vermont; and two grandchildren.

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