30 Years of Americana, Through Jean-Pierre Laffont’s Lens

Bronx, New York City, New York / Summer, 1966 On Fox Street in the Bronx, an abandoned Plymouth “Savoy” becomes a jungle gym for kids to play in and on.
Summer 1966: On Fox Street in the Bronx, an abandoned Plymouth Savoy becomes a jungle gym. Photo: JP Laffont

“In Paris, I was a fashion photographer, doing portraiture of stars,” Jean-Pierre Laffont is saying. “I was not so happy doing that kind of work — I always wanted, all the time, to be a photojournalist.” The opportunity, he explains, arrived in 1965, when a friend was coming to New York as a radio reporter, and he tagged along.

He stayed. Laffont still lives here, on West 72nd Street — although he’s never lost his French accent, he certainly speaks as fast as any New York native — and those 30 years of work are being collected in a big volume called Photographer’s Paradise (Glitterati Incorporated; out September 4). The title refers not just to New York but to America in general, and especially the America that was splitting, cracking, fissuring in a million ways through these decades. Laffont joined the long tradition, beginning with de Toqueville, of Frenchmen who were able to see what it was. His fashion background certainly did not confine his taste. “I was very attracted to Brooklyn and the Bronx,” he says, “and what was happening around that time — like on West 65th, for example, where transvestites were working at night.”

It’s not all grit, however. He worked nearly as much in color as in black-and-white, which was still a little unusual for serious photographers back then. In that regard, Laffont cites the Magnum photographer Ernst Haas as his chief influence. “He was doing something totally different — taking pictures in color, of the time, straight traditional horizons, good composition.”

Speaking of which, you can see in this book Laffont’s particular taste for a kind of photo that is very much of the moment today: a field of edge-to-edge pattern, with a small device that repeats throughout the frame. (See the photos above of Volkswagens arriving in America and the Yale protest.) “I have a frame in front of my eyes,” Laffont agrees, when I mention this to him. “I compose a picture before I click. Composition is very important to me — photographers show me pictures with blur, I don’t understand. I rejected a million of my pictures like that!”

New York City, New York / July 4, 1986 Residents pack the balconies of a West Side building to watch the international tall ships sailing on the Hudson River taking part in the Independence Day and Statue of Liberty centennial. Millions of observers will witness “Operation Sail.”
July 4, 1986: Watching Operation Sail's tall ships from a West Side building. Photo: JP Laffont
Manhattan, New York City, New York / August 13, 1969 Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and
Michael Collins receive a heroes welcome to celebrate their successful manned lunar landing. New York City kicked off a 45-day “Giant Leap” tour of the US with a massive ticker-tape parade in their honor.
August 13, 1969: A ticker-tape shower for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins after their return from the moon. Photo: JP Laffont
Brooklyn, New York City, New York / April 14, 1974 The last of the original AT&T switchboard operators, of which 98% were women, as they were believed to be more polite than men. They provided information and helped customers make long-distance calls. The next day the old “corded” switchboards were replaced with the more technologically advanced “TSPS” system.
April 14, 1974: New York's AT&T switchboard operators at work, on the day before automated switching replaces them. Photo: JP Laffont
Manhattan, New York City, New York / June 28, 1970 Two men “flip the bird” to the gathering crowd in Central Park as the two lie on the ground and compete in the kissing contest during New York’s first Gay Pride celebration.
June 28, 1970: At the first Gay Pride celebration in Central Park. Photo: JP Laffont
Newark, New Jersey / May 30, 1973 Rows of Volkswagen Beetles are unloaded in the port of New York. During the oil crisis, the US auto market, famously flooded with massive gas-guzzlers, was suddenly turning its eye to compact, energy-efficient cars. The Volkswagen Bug was a big hit due to its low price and fuel economy.
May 30, 1973: As the Arab oil embargo causes a spike in gasoline prices, VW Beetles are unloaded in the port of New York. Photo: JP Laffont
Brooklyn, New York City, New York / March 16, 1974 I was invited to see Wiccans, who some
consider witches, dance around the altar celebrating the magnificence of Mother Nature.
March 16, 1974: Brooklyn Wiccans dance in celebration. Photo: JP Laffont
New York City, New York / June 20, 1971 Linotype machine operators lay out the text of the paper’s next editions. Demand for The New York Times went through the roof during the printing of the Pentagon Papers.”
June 20, 1971: Linotype operators typeset the next day's New York Times, during a surge in newspaper sales owing to the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Photo: JP Laffont
Cupertino, California / January 25, 1984 Apple will facilitate all aspects of its hardware and create its own operating system.
January 25, 1984: Apple's new Macintosh computers come off the production line. Photo: JP Laffont
New Haven, Connecticut / May 2, 1970 (Detail) Yale students join forces with Black Panthers. Students at Yale University adopted the Panthers’ arrest as their cause-du-jour, rallying and even inviting visiting Panther supporters to sleep in their dorms.
May 2, 1970: Yale students rally in support of the Black Panthers. Photo: JP Laffont

Photographer's Paradise: Turbulent America 1960-1990 by Jean-Pierre Laffont, published by Glitterati Incorporated.