Jean-Pierre Laffont photographed the Algerian War, Eisenhower’s funeral and Nixon’s inauguration, Klan training camps in the forests of Tennessee, and the 15th anniversary of Disney World in Orlando. But New York, his adoptive city, is still his favorite subject. From gangs in the Bronx and the Statue of Liberty occupied by a group of Vietnam veterans in 1971 to the futuristic TWA terminal where he welcomed visiting French celebrities, he has crisscrossed the city to capture its different aspects and characters.
But why did he chose to feature black and white images in his latest book? “When I started, that was the format beginners used,” says the photographer. “Color was terribly expensive and so it was reserved for fashion and advertising. Press photos were almost exclusively in black and white until the mid-1970s. My stories on the island of Guam, where U.S. B-52 bombers were launched to attack Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and on the huge evangelical conference in Dallas in 1972 – a ‘religious Woodstock’ – were among my first works in color.”
“I love noir films from the 1940s and 1950s, particularly Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, and Jean-Pierre’s work on New York reminds me of this style,” says his wife Eliane, the co-founder of the Gamma and Sygma agencies and the editor of New York Noir. She is the one who found in their archives the photo that went on to become her husband’s “signature”: In a dilapidated street in the Bronx in 1966, a grinning boy stands on the roof of an abandoned luxury Plymouth. The image, a print of which is offered with each copy of the book, offers a metaphor for the city at a turning point in its history. “You can see the brutality of the time, but also the hope and exuberance of this kid,” says the photographer. “He’s looking to the future.”
New York in Five Images, by Jean-Pierre Laffont:
“This was the summer of 1966 and I was exploring the Bronx. I took photos for pleasure and to immerse myself in this new city. At the time, I was interested in the terrible sanitary conditions in this part New York. The city had no money, everything was dirty, and the garbage collectors only came every ten or fifteen days. Some residents would throw their trash directly into the building courtyards, while others organized groups to clean up the neighborhood. I took this photo from a balcony after arriving with the Department of Sanitation. I took advantage of being with their truck and accompanied by their agents. If I had gone in on my own, I don’t know if I would have come out with my two Leica cameras!”
“On June 28, 1970, I covered New York City’s first Gay Pride. The date was chosen to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which launched the LGBTQ+ liberation movement in the United States. We left from Christopher Street, the center of gay culture in Greenwich Village, and walked up 6th Avenue to Central Park. At the end of the day, a competition for the longest kiss was held in the middle of the park! It was a great moment of joy, love, and freedom. This couple, who kissed for hours under an umbrella, obviously didn’t care about being photographed!”
“In the early 1970s, people were thrown from buildings and bodies were found almost every morning in the Hunts Point area of the South Bronx. Faced with the drug epidemic, a group of young Puerto Ricans had decided to attack dealers and throw them out of the windows. The name ‘Savage Skulls’ was splashed across the newspapers. I was curious, and went to meet them in July 1972. Most of them didn’t speak English and had never been to Manhattan, despite the fact it was so close. They showed me their neighborhood, their headquarters, their weapons – chains, iron bars, revolvers – and spent their time fighting amongst themselves and with other local gangs, such as the Dirty Dozen, the Seven Immortals, and the Savage Nomads. They were like young lions.”
“I photographed the New York marathon several times. That year, in 1978, I was working for Sygma. I began the day on top of the Verrazzano Bridge pillars for the start of the race – it was very impressive! I then went to Harlem before taking the subway to see the runners crossing the finish line in Central Park. The exhausted athletes were wrapped in foil blankets; some of them couldn’t take another step and had collapsed in the grass. For the first time ever, the race had gone through all five boroughs in New York, and some 11,400 runners from 52 countries had taken part. The first time I photographed the marathon, for its second year in 1971, there were barely 150 runners and the whole thing was held in Central Park!”
“This was in May 1980, when Times Square was at its worst! At 10 p.m., the tourists would return to their hotels and a shadier crowd would arrive. This was an area filled with drugs, peepshows, and prostitutes. Gigolos and transvestites would go out later in the night. The atmosphere shifted throughout the day. I took this photo around 3 a.m., near 42nd Street. Overdoses were common and ambulances were everywhere. It was another era. Times Square was a cut-throat place before the then mayor, Rudy Giuliani, ‘cleaned up’ the neighborhood. Today, I’m not scared of taking my grandchildren there!”
New York Noir by Jean-Pierre Laffont, edited by Eliane Laffont, Peanut Press, 2021. 40 pages, 125 dollars (signed limited edition, sold with a print).