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Lens: Looking Back on the Grit and Glamour of New York

Lens: Looking Back on the Grit and Glamour of New York

Jean-Pierre Laffont was in his 20s when he landed the kind of jobs that were the stuff of dreams for young photographers. In Paris, he worked as an assistant for the celebrity photographers Sam Levin and Alexander Choura. In Rome, he photographed Ava Gardner on an MGM film set.

Mr. Laffont was not impressed.

“I was not at all interested in that,” Mr. Laffont, now 83, said. “I wanted to work for a magazine as a photojournalist.”

So Mr. Laffont flew to New York, hoping to catch a break. He’d never been to the United States and spoke only a little English. He had no furniture and few possessions besides his cameras. But he made friends quickly, and photographed voraciously. The city, he said, welcomed him.

“In America,” he said, “people give you a chance.”

Young children playing while older ones helped with cleanup in the Bronx in July 1966.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

Valerie Mayers flexing her biceps during the Ms. Empire State Competition in June 1981.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York greeting supporters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, during his presidential campaign in April 1968.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

At first, Mr. Laffont made money however he could: He gave bicycle lessons to children in Riverside Park; he photographed parties; he did portraits for aspiring models. A year later, he began photographing for Status Magazine, which eventually got him a green card and, as a result, the ability to freelance.

But the possibilities of a life in photojournalism only truly presented themselves to Mr. Laffont in 1968 when an old classmate, Hubert Henrotte, asked him to become the first foreign correspondent for the French photo agency Gamma. Along with his new wife, Eliane, Mr. Laffont launched the agency’s American bureau.

“He could finally have the life he wanted,” Mrs. Laffont said.

In the following decades, Mr. Laffont traveled the globe shooting the biggest stories of the day. In between assignments, he returned home to New York, where the city always seemed to present something worth of photographing, whether he was covering the news or simply walking down the street.

“Coming out of your building, you turn around and — boom — the pictures are there,” he said. “They were all over.”


The Statue of Liberty under renovation in November 1985.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

Hands from behind the prison cells at the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as “the Tombs.”CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

Times Square, 1980CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

A book published by Glitterati last year, “New York City Up and Down” presents a wide collection of Mr. Laffont’s New York images through the early 2000s. An exhibition opening this week at the Leica Store in SoHo, “New York Down and Out,” features a selection of Mr. Laffont’s photographs of the city from the 1960s and 1970s.

“The ’60s and ’70s were extraordinary for photojournalists in America because it was the beginning of everything: gay rights, women’s lib — you name it,” Mrs. Laffont said. “Everything happened in America in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Many of Mr. Laffont’s photos from this time capture the city at its most joyous — a ticker-tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts, a couple kissing on the first Gay Pride Day, Robert F. Kennedy greeting throngs of supporters. They also capture the era’s turbulence, including homelessness, drugs, gangs and neighborhood neglect. Taken together, Mr. Laffont’s photos form the kind of freewheeling, cleareyed portrait that only a true admirer of the city could create.


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech denouncing the Vietnam War outside the United Nations in April 1967.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

People watching police officers handle a man on the street who had overdosed in 1980.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

The ticker-tape parade celebrating the Apollo 11 astronauts in August 1969.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

The last few decades, however, have made Mr. Laffont sour on the city. He bemoans everything from the noisy subways to lack of new infrastructure, and especially rising rents — which forced him to move his office from New York to Miami, where he and his wife will, for the first time, spend the winter.

He won’t miss New York much while he’s gone. He’s looking forward to warmer weather and the opportunity to get to know the people of Miami. Maybe, he said, he’ll learn a little Spanish while he’s there.

“But are we Floridian?” Mrs. Laffont said. “No. We’re New Yorkers.”


Muhammad Ali during the weigh-in process before his second boxing match with Joe Frazier in New York in January 1974.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

French singer Gilbert Bécaud, October 1966.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

Kids playing in the Bronx, New York, summer 1966.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus walk their elephants through the Holland Tunnel into New York during a transportation strike.CreditJean-Pierre Laffont

“New York Down and Out” is at the Leica Store in SoHo from Nov. 8 to Dec. 31.

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November 9, 2018 at 10:12PM


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