How a French Photographer Captured a Seminal Period in American History 

Jean-Pierre Laffont’s extensive photo archive seems almost mythological: How could one photographer cover so many seminal events with such a unique vision?

Laffont arrived in New York from France in 1965, an important time for photojournalists in the United States with both the Watts riots and the Selma to Montgomery marches taking place. But Laffont didn’t have the money to travel around the country to document them—instead, he decided to dig deeper into local stories, specifically in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

“It was so beautiful from the air, but when you were down on the ground the garbage wasn’t collected the city was in shambles, they were throwing the garbage out of the windows,” Laffont said about his first look at New York.

Around this time, Laffont married Eliane Lucotte. In 1969, the two opened the U.S. bureau of the French-based Gamma agency and in 1973, they founded Sygma Photo News. (Disclosure: My first job in the photo business was at Sygma.) Laffont spent the next three decades traveling and shooting around the world.

A few years ago, Laffont and his wife began going through his extensive archive. “Eliane is a wonderful editor and I’m lucky enough as a photographer to be married to an editor,” Laffont said about their partnership. The two approached Marta Hallett, the publisher of Glitterati Incorporated, about putting together a book about Laffont’s work in the United States since they felt most people were only familiar with his photos from abroad.

“She saw the big box [of images] and about 20 pictures and she said, OK, I will do a book,” Laffont said with a laugh. It resulted in a 392-page book with 359 images—a small bit of Laffont’s work—they titled Photographer’s Paradise: Turbulent America 1960-1990.

Working on the book was a happy accident for Laffont, a chance for him to reflect back on his career, something he hadn’t done before. In 2001 he became very sick from an autoimmune disease and was complexly paralyzed for an entire year, eventually having to relearn how to walk and move his body.

“I realized I had three or four years of my life missing and when I looked at these photos I thought, my god is this me? Slowly my past came back to me and sometimes it was quite vivid. I can almost repeat word for word some of the conversations I had with people I photographed from as far back as 1965. It was a happy shock to see my archive. It is true that I didn’t have a need to see what I had done but now I like it very much. I like discovering pictures I hadn’t seen before.”

Update, July 30, 2018: The photos from this post have been removed at the photographer’s request.