Jean-Pierre Laffont: Photographer’s Paradise: Turbulent America 1960-1990 (PHOTOS).

How a French Photographer Captured a Seminal Period in American History 

How a French Photographer Captured a Seminal Period in American History 

Behold
The Photo Blog
Dec. 19 2014 11:07 AM

How a French Photographer Captured a Seminal Period in American History 

In 1980, the U.S. allowed women to actively serve in the military. Here, women take part in basic training against atomic radiation in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
In 1980, the U.S. allowed women to actively serve in the military. Here, women take part in basic training against atomic radiation in Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Jean-Pierre Laffont, © 2014

Jean-Pierre Laffont’s extensive photo archive seems almost mythological: How could one photographer cover so many seminal events with such a unique vision?

Laffont arrived in New York from France in 1965, an important time for photojournalists in the United States with both the Watts riots and the Selma to Montgomery marches taking place. But Laffont didn’t have the money to travel around the country to document them—instead, he decided to dig deeper into local stories, specifically in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

“It was so beautiful from the air, but when you were down on the ground the garbage wasn’t collected the city was in shambles, they were throwing the garbage out of the windows,” Laffont said about his first look at New York.

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Around this time, Laffont married Eliane Lucotte. In 1969, the two opened the U.S. bureau of the French-based Gamma agency and in 1973, they founded Sygma Photo News. (Disclosure: My first job in the photo business was at Sygma.) Laffont spent the next three decades traveling and shooting around the world.

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Left: Two homeless men squat in the shadow of the recently completed World Trade Center in October 1975. New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy and the World Trade Center sat largely vacant. Right: Tombs Prison was built in 1840 with granite from an old prison in City Hall.

Jean-Pierre Laffont, © 2014

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Two men “flip the bird” to the crowd in Central Park as they compete in the kissing contest during New York’s first Gay Pride celebration on June 28, 1970.

Jean-Pierre Laffont, © 2014

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Members of the Ku Klux Klan gather at a monthly ceremony on Dec. 11, 1976 in Dunham Springs, Louisiana. Wearing white hoods, they circle their traditional cross on fire.

Jean-Pierre Laffont, © 2014

A few years ago, Laffont and his wife began going through his extensive archive. “Eliane is a wonderful editor and I’m lucky enough as a photographer to be married to an editor,” Laffont said about their partnership. The two approached Marta Hallett, the publisher of Glitterati Incorporated, about putting together a book about Laffont’s work in the United States since they felt most people were only familiar with his photos from abroad.

“She saw the big box [of images] and about 20 pictures and she said, OK, I will do a book,” Laffont said with a laugh. It resulted in a 392-page book with 359 images—a small bit of Laffont’s work—they titled Photographer’s Paradise: Turbulent America 1960-1990.

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Left: President Nixon resigns on Aug. 9, 1974. Right: A young couple kisses at the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, New York on July 28, 1973. The rock festival once received the Guinness Book of World Records entry for “Largest audience at a pop festival.”

Jean-Pierre Laffont, © 2014.

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Surrounded by press and bodyguards, Muhammad Ali gestures before brawling with Joe Frazier at the New York studio of ABC during the weigh-in process on Jan. 23, 1974. Both were fined $5,000.

Jean-Pierre Laffont, © 2014

Working on the book was a happy accident for Laffont, a chance for him to reflect back on his career, something he hadn’t done before. In 2001 he became very sick from an autoimmune disease and was complexly paralyzed for an entire year, eventually having to relearn how to walk and move his body.

“I realized I had three or four years of my life missing and when I looked at these photos I thought, my god is this me? Slowly my past came back to me and sometimes it was quite vivid. I can almost repeat word for word some of the conversations I had with people I photographed from as far back as 1965. It was a happy shock to see my archive. It is true that I didn’t have a need to see what I had done but now I like it very much. I like discovering pictures I hadn’t seen before.”

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Mr. Roc Mc Tigert on Dec. 11, 1980 at the age of 80. He lived alone on a farm and could no longer buy gas so he used a horse.

Jean-Pierre Laffont, © 2014

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Boys gone wild at New York’s legendary Studio 54, where debauchery, sex, drugs, and disco ruled from 1977 until 1981, when, amid scandal and legal action, the nightclub was sold by founders and creators Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager.

Jean-Pierre Laffont, © 2014

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.