Jean-Pierre Laffont: America's greatest living photographer?

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This article originally appeared in Umbrella, Issue 11
 
He might be French, but Jean-Pierre Laffont is one of the great photographers of the American age. 
 
Arriving from France, via his original home, Algeria, Laffont has spent the last 50 years documenting the people extraordinary country, from near-untouchable politicians to gang members who can barely speak a word of English. This diversity, and the warmth of the population, is what’s kept him in the USA since 1965. 
 
A new book, Photographer’s Paradise, Turbulent America 1960-1960, showcases the best of his work: here he talks to Umbrella about his incredible career and what he’s taken from it.
 
You arrived in New York in 1965. What were your first impressions?
Everything was dirty and broken, the city was down. But each corner was interesting: garbage spills and abandoned cars everywhere. I did not expect it, but I loved the melting pot. I’m a photographer, I see in colour. 
 
Did you have job?
No, but I had a camera around my neck, and started to photograph what I saw around me all the time. I was totally submerged by the beauty of Sixth Avenue, by the Empire State Building, by Brooklyn Bridge. Yet, it wasn’t what I expected, there were muggings everywhere. I was burgled, all my cameras disappeared one morning.
 
When did you start working? 
I was a very good in the darkroom, so I worked in one 17 hours a day, sleeping on the floor, making money to survive. Then I met someone from Status magazine, and he asked if I wanted to work with him. I worked each night at Le Club – a disco near the United Nations. They used me so much they couldn’t pay me, but they arranged my green card – my permanent residence. 
 
You took photos of the political heavyweights of the day…
I was at the White House for six years with Richard Nixon. I’d joined Gamma agency in ’69, so had a press pass accreditation. I followed him until his last day there. When he left in 1974, I wanted to see his departure from the White House lawn: his shoulder was down, but he gave that victory sign as he got in the helicopter. It was interesting. All the staff were crying, the maid, chef, the butler, the secretaries. Painful.
 
You also snapped Bobby Kennedy…
Yeah, it was very touching. They’re the sacred family of the USA, the Kennedys – going from one disaster to another. I stayed with him when he announced his presidency. When he came out, I was at the other side of the limo as I wanted to have his reflection in the roof. He did that gesture, trying to shake an admirers’ hand, it’s one of my favourites. They told me not to follow him on the trail to California, but of course, it was there he was assassinated [in 1968]. 
 
Can you tell us about photos of the gang in New York?
The gangs were mostly in the Bronx, with some in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. This one was called the Savage Skulls. A journalist wrote they were pushing cocaine pushers from the roof of their housing block – it was repeatedly said. But there was no proof. I went to see them with a cameraman from a French TV station. I was in my small French car, and slowly drove on to the kerb to see the gang. 
 
Were they suspicious?
They asked if we were going to photograph them. We said yes. Then they asked if were going to interview us and we said no, we just want to record your life. They said, “Everything that’s been said about us is wrong.” They were speaking like me in broken English, because they were Spanish-speakers. 
 
The gang were curious, we showed them our equipment, as they wanted to see how it worked. They were always making a show, pretending they were fighting, acting like little kittens. With me, they were gentle. They lived in the blocks, but didn’t know Manhattan. Their gang protected them and they had their own law – normal laws of New York City didn’t apply to them. They had a club with music and strange lights, in which there were all kinds of weapons. 
 
Is it easier or harder to take pictures now?
You come with me on the subway, and photograph a person and they’ll smile at you or turn their head. In Germany, they’d ask you for your pass. This is why I call my book Photographer’s Paradise. You have a welcome in this country that I love. 
 
What sort of equipment do you use?
I used to have five cameras around my neck. We didn’t have time to change lenses or films, and you don’t want to lose those minutes. Now look at it today. We have extraordinary technology. I wish I was starting my career again! When I see the young kids photographing today, I envy so them much. I don’t know how you see life, but I see it in colour. Of course, I took a lot in black and white as we were forced to use it in the old days. But I hate the photographer today who goes into the jungle, and they come back with a pictures in black and white. They’re criminal. 
 
Do you prefer the America of today or of old?
It’s hard to answer that. I made so many mistakes. When I arrived, we had riots of black people, and I thought, This is a revolution, they’ll get freedom. I was wrong. Do we have more justice today? I want to believe it. But we don’t care if people are gay or black or from Mexico. You get the benefit of the doubt. In Europe, you’re always on the defence. 
 
One moment I’ll never forget is when the USA went to the Moon in 1969. At Cape Canaveral, I set up my stepladder. I couldn’t really see the rocket, but I had 20,000 people in front of me. Their joy was a moment of collective happiness I’ve never forgotten.
 
Photographer’s Paradise, Turbulent America 1960-1960 by Jean-Pierre Laffont is out now, published  by Glitterati Incorporated, glitteratiincorporated.com
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 







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