Looking Back on the Grit and Glamour of New York

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.”

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.”

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 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.”

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



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