By Jim Colton
“The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn't the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.” -- John Lennon
I consider myself a child of the sixties...trying to be "hip"...but not a hippie...experimenting with drugs...listening to rock and roll (I didn't make Woodstock...but I did make Watkins Glen) being socially conscious...protesting the war in Vietnam...and being affected by the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy...but at the same time being filled with wonderment and awe when we landed on the moon...while watching it "live!"
The sixties, seventies and even the eighties were turbulent times. Images from the Vietnam War like Eddie Adams' execution in Saigon and Nick Ut's napalm girl were now on the front pages of newspapers showing up at breakfast tables around the world. Students were being shot by our own military at campuses like Kent State. Richard Nixon resigned as President...gas lines formed all across America...the Munich Olympic massacre....Chernobyl...the Challenger explosion...Tiananmen Square…the Berlin Wall...the list could go on forever.
But back in the US, one man was taking it all in; documenting a culture and lifestyle of an era that changed us all...free love and free spirits...from civil rights to women's rights and politics to personalities. Jean-Pierre Laffont was enjoying the freedom given to photographers back then in what he called a, "Photographer's Paradise," aptly, the title of his new book published by Glitterati Inc. (See link below)
The passion for his craft and the spirit of that era are exquisitely captured in the abundant 392 pages. In the book's foreword, Sir Harold Evans says, “Jean-Pierre Laffont gives us a kaleidoscopic review of what he saw happening to America between the 1960s and the 1990s. He has a restless eye, attracted less to the choreography of Washington politics than the social significance of street-level turbulence in the cities and stoicism down on the farm.”
Laffont, born in Algeria and schooled in Morocco and Switzerland, worked as a photographer in Paris and photographed movie sets for MGM in Rome before coming to the United States in 1965. In 1966 he married Eliane Lucotte and together they founded the US bureau of Gamma in 1969 and then Sygma in 1973, two of the most prominent news photo agencies of the time.
His work has been recognized by all the major photography contests worldwide including World Press Photo, POYi and he was awarded the French National Order, "Chevalier des 'Arts & Lettres," in 1996, the same year he had a retrospective of his work at the "Visa pour L'Image" festival in Perpignan. He is the author of several books and has contributed to many of the "A Day in the Life of" series. "Photographer's Paradise" and Glitterati Inc., was just recognized with a Lucie Award for "Best Publisher of the Year."
This week, as Laffont heads to the 2015 FOTOfusion festival to present his work, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the passionate and eloquent Jean-Pierre Laffont as he discusses his "Magical Mystery Tour."
Jim Colton: When did you first realize that photography was going to be your calling? Tell us a little bit about your early years and who or what some of your earliest influences were.
Jean-Pierre Laffont: My decision to become a photographer didn't happen overnight. In 1952, I was doing a lot of scuba diving and spear gunning along the coasts of Algeria and Morocco. I really admired Hans Haas’s underwater photography and knew that I wanted to take photos of marine life…so abundant at the time. My mother had a Rolleiflex and loved taking family photos. In 1954, she bought me a Leica IIIF. I was immediately hooked, and my interest in underwater photography was put on the shelf. I began buying photography books; “From One China to the Other” and “The Europeans,” by Henri Cartier-Bresson, “The Family of Man” by Edward Steichen, “Moscow” by William Klein, etc. I was fascinated and in awe and would go through these books every day.
After I graduated high school in 1956, I wanted to study photography and I applied for entry at L’Ecole des Arts et Metiers de Vevey in Switzerland. There were about 250 applicants (8 foreigners, myself included) for 19 spots. I was one of the lucky few accepted. I received my diploma in 1960. By that time, I had gotten comfortable with the Leica M3 and then the MP, which I used during my military duty in the Algerian war until 1962.
JC: How did the idea of your new book “Photographer’s Paradise” come to be? How did you come up with the title and what does “Photographer’s Paradise” mean to you personally?
JPL: My wife Eliane and I had the idea to make a book from my archives in 2010 when we were going through my photos…taken from more than 40 years of work. Luckily, I had moved all the archives to New York City. Until then, they were sitting at Corbis, in Dreux, France. My photos came from the agencies that represented me (Gamma from 1969-1973 then Sygma from 1973-1990) before they were bought by Corbis. What we were able to gather is now sitting in New York contained in 60 feet of file cabinets, each with 4 or 6 drawers. After I was able to consolidate all of the film, contact sheets, slides, and original prints, it took us another year to create a viable database that I was able to navigate.
The sad fact is that there was an enormous amount of color slides lost between 1965 and 1979, due to a lack of equipment to make duplicates. Our agents would send the original color slides to clients who unfortunately never returned them. In 1979, Sygma opened its own lab and was able to make quality duplicates; but even some of those were lost. Then finally Corbis chose to scan some negatives and slides to put them in their database…and even more originals were lost.
Two years ago, Eliane began the work of editing this massive archive. First she edited about two hundred photos to show publishers. Then she realized that between 1965 (when I arrived in the USA) and 1969 (when I began working with Gamma) that there were a lot of photos and stories that were never edited.
This period was rich with subjects; the protests against the Vietnam War, the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the launch of Apollo XI to the moon, rock festivals, the hippie movement, LSD, and the civil rights and women’s movements. Building on that momentum, Eliane started to edit the photos chronologically…starting in the late 1960’s, focusing solely on American subjects and stories. The idea to make a book became obvious to Eliane who felt I had a whole history of the US during those three decades. She selected about 180 photos that we printed on 11”x17” paper.
Our friend Douglas Kirkland recommended we go see Marta Hallett, the CEO of Glitterati Publishing Inc. She met us the day after our phone call and we showed her the photos. At first, she was silent and very attentive, and then after seeing about 20 photos she said “I want to do this book!” We were very happy of course.
While talking with Marta about America at some point in the conversation, I said that for a photographer, America is a paradise. Marta hung on to that title, which I found too ambiguous at first. I was concerned that some might think that I consider America to be paradise…far from it. What I wanted to say is that the freedom I was given as a photographer, as a witness to my time, helped me understand what is and should be our work as photojournalists.
I was fortunate to have traveled and taken photos in almost all the countries of the world and in many I did not receive the same welcome and the same freedom to work. I will say it again. Because of the freedom given to photographers, America is a paradise. It was then…and it still is today.
JC: Do you think being foreign-born gave you a different perspective on American culture?
JPL: I have often been asked that question…which seems to have a hidden meaning, such as; “Our countries often disagree.” or “Don’t you think you see America like a Frenchman? Traditional photojournalism was born in France…has it influenced your work? Has your way of doing this work changed after living in the USA for so many years?”
First, let me tell you how I met my first American. I was seven-years-old and it happened on November 10th, 1942, on the Moroccan coast. He was a soldier and had lost his unit and my grandfather hid him in an empty wine cellar at our farm. The landing of American forces in North Africa on November 8th went very badly in Morocco. My mother took me and my brother, who was three-months-old, away from Casablanca that day as American bombs rained down around us. We sought refuge at my grandparents’ farm for a few days where the French troops loyal to the Vichy government held out against the arrival of the Americans.
It was wonderful for us to meet this American soldier. He introduced me to my first bite of chocolate, and my first piece of chewing gum, which was black because it was made from licorice. I have never found that same kind again. He distributed his packs of cigarettes among the family, and in return he drank a lot of our wine and slept a lot. I remember him showing us his family photos. When he finally found an American unit, he brought them all back to our farm to thank us and gave us more treats; those colorful candies with holes in the middle, called Life Savers.
A few months later, it was my stepfather’s turn to don his uniform and leave with the Americans to free Sicily, Italy, and France and finally ended up in Germany. When I saw him come back two years later he was lieutenant and he had a Jeep, the first American car I loved. You can now imagine the gratitude and respect I had for America when I was young and I have no shame in sharing with you my enormous joy when I arrived in New York in April of 1965.
So, to answer your question, when I arrived in this country, the visual shock was extraordinary. I had a fresh eye, was curious, and I was looking at everything for the first time. Coming from a different culture gives you an appreciation and another point of view. I wanted to photograph everything…everywhere…and all the time!
JC: Do you think you will ever experience again that kind of openness and freedom that seemed to exist in the period of time covered in your book?
JPL: In the USA, freedom of the press is guaranteed in the constitution and nobody ever worries about it because it is intrinsically part of your freedom of expression from the moment you have your press badge identifying you officially as a photojournalist. During that time, the moments you were not allowed to take photos were so rare. In general, all photos were permitted in all circumstances.
Here’s an anecdotal story that could have happened to anyone on any given day. In 1969, in New Jersey, the car in front of me was hit by a huge truck that had crossed the highway safety zone at high speed. My camera was on the passenger seat and I grabbed it and took photos. The truck driver drove away from the scene without so much as checking on his victim. I didn’t need to be a doctor to be able to see that the driver of the car had died instantly. I barely took any photos because other witnesses urged me to stop. It’s often like that after an accident; a collective impulse to protect the privacy of the victims sets in masquerading as public duty.
After determining with the police that I could use the photos, I got the film developed at a daily newspaper that published the photos the next day. Later, the lawyer for the victim’s widow contacted me to thank me and she told me that because of my photos showing the runaway truck driver, she was spared the expense of a lawsuit. The newspaper then lost my negatives. End of story. A photojournalist is potentially at work every day of his or her life and the freedom to practice your work is greatly appreciated.
JC: Of those three decades, do you have a favorite… and why?
JPL: I believe I made very strong images in the 60’s because I had just arrived in the US and seeing the country with amazed eyes. New York was a violent, dirty, surprising, incomparable city and incredibly photogenic. Still, I think I prefer my work from the 70’s. First, because of the variety of subject matter; the protests against the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon leaving the White House, Jimmy Carter’s America, the beginning of the Gay Pride and the feminist movements, and the economic crisis.
In the 1980's, I spent five years with farmers; my favorite Americans. I fell in love with American farmers…so pure, so hard working, and so generous. I had incredible satisfaction working on that story but what I am the most proud of is to have made a personal and historical portrait of this incredibly interesting country. No, I do not have a favorite in those three decades…I love them all.
JC: Is there a single image of the book…or maybe a few images… that you are particularly proud of? If so, could you tell us why they resonate with you?
JPL: Generally, I don’t like many of my photos. I am very critical of my work and I always ask myself why I didn't use that lens or why I didn't take more photos or I should have been more to the right or I didn't snap the photo at the right time or I should have stayed there longer, etc., etc. I do, however, love photos by other photographers who meet my own criteria.
One day in September of 1972, I had the chance to go to Tombs Prison in New York City, which was located under the NYC Supreme Court, which no longer exists. I wanted to document the new methadone program that had been recently adopted by the prison system of New York. Probably having been notified of my visit, the prisoners lined up behind the bars of their cells on my right. Though my lens was quite long, I could not see their faces but I saw their arms and hands and I took a photo.
I like this photo because, for me, it captures the 3 states of mind you find in all prisons; and I have visited my share. First, you have the rebels, represented by the raised fist. Then, you have those who pray (many bibles are read in prison represented by the joined pair of hands) Finally, there are those who are conflicted and submissive; their hands just hanging there, open…the hands of people who have given up and don’t have it in them anymore to fight or pray. That picture was widely published around the world back then and it still is today. Eliane and I had selected that photo as a possible cover for the book. That shows you how much I love that photo.
Good photography requires luck and the decisiveness to seize that luck when it is in front of you. I realized the moment I took that photo that I had captured something special. I stayed in the same spot for a few moments to take more photos, but the prisoners were moving and the photo wasn't there anymore. Today when I look at that contact sheet, there is only one good photo: this one.
JC: It is stated in the book that almost all of these images were from self-assigned stories. What were some of the advantages (no deadlines?) and disadvantages (cost?) that you faced during these projects?
JPL: I will not deny the comforts and advantages of working for a magazine when you are being paid. Your expenses are covered and you are part of a team that supports you and you have a greater assurance that your work will be published. However, having to report my every movement and the obligation to follow a precise editorial idea that wasn't mine…always stopped me from photographing the way I wanted to.
Working on command is not for me. I feel trapped; like being a horse with blinders on. I do not want to see the subject through the tight lens imposed on you. Here’s an example. A magazine wants you to follow a candidate during an election (In B&W only please and in less than 48 hours, etc.). You are bound to their press team, their schedule and their transportation…which isn't so bad at first.
But then, here is the candidate in front of you and you’re supposed to take portraits with good expressions, and you do that all day, despite the fact that the most interesting story to you are the people watching and listening to him; those factory workers we just visited, the protesters with signs you can’t read because you aren't being paid to look at them. You don’t photograph that because it’s not your assignment. At the end of your career, if you've always worked that way, you have lost tons of great photos and you’ll never make a book of your own.
Cherish your liberty because when you work on assignment you are essentially making photos that someone else wants, not you. For me, when working on assignment, I feel I am no longer a photojournalist; I am simply a photographer.
When President Gerald Ford was sworn in, instead of staying with him for the ceremony like all of my colleagues, I decided to follow outgoing President Richard Nixon leaving, and I took the photo of the helicopter leaving the ground with the guards rolling out the carpet. This photo is very famous now. If I had been on assignment, I would have missed that shot.
JC: The era documented is all pre-digital. Do you think shooting film made you more selective about your choices? Do you believe there is any difference (other than technical) between having to shoot analog or digital?
JPL: It was such a moving era…changing so rapidly. Everything has changed superficially and yet nothing has changed deeply. For example, I would go off to foreign lands with about 330 pounds of luggage. I had my metallic Halliburton case full of various films: Tri-X, Ektachrome for daylight and for artificial light, and Kodachrome. Another suitcase was filled with lenses from a 600mm to 300mm, in pairs of two in case I lost one; 5 to 8 cameras as well as pounds of batteries since the cameras at the time weren’t rechargeable.
What were required materials then are obsolete today: “Les cellules photoelectriques” (photo cells) and color meters to balance the whites by hand and choose the right filter when you needed one. Flashes were also indispensable. It was very difficult to work at more than 800 ISO. You had to remember key numbers when going from B&W to color. I can’t tell you how much time was lost setting up shots with all these various lenses, some mounted to the right, some to the left. Zoom lenses came much later and were always very expensive.
Sometimes you had to take B&W as well as color photos because few clients could print in color before 1970. When working in color, we had to take multiple shots to make original prints because agencies either did not have the technology or the time to make duplicates before sending prints out to clients.
There would also be stressful moments when you had your 4 or 5 cameras dangling around your neck at the scene and you had to remember which one was out of film because 36 photos go by quickly and changing film could take a full minute you did not have. That minute is time lost, therefore photos lost. The biggest stress came at the end of the day when we had to send all the film back to the agencies or magazines. This meant choosing on instinct a crew member or passenger on a plane to entrust your precious rolls of film and notes to, then somehow contacting someone by phone or by telex that could be trusted to meet the landing plane and pick the package up until my film and notes reached their final destination.
Decades later, I look on the back of some of my contact sheets and find no dates, times, place or notes about the story they are part of. My notes were never transcribed or were lost. I try to remember who I photographed; where and why. All of that stress no longer exists today.
You can get around with all your gear in one suitcase-- two cameras, their chargers, 4 SD cards, 3 lenses (2 of which have zooms), a cell phone, a laptop…Wi-Fi is amazing, right? It’s the end of lost photos and notes. Plus, with modern cameras the flash is incorporated, white balance and focus is automatic. I would really love to do my whole career over with digital equipment and not have to think about scanning these thousands of slides and negatives and searching for my non-existent notes.
JC: As someone who has seen and experienced all the changes in our industry…what do you miss the most about the way we documented the world in the 20th century…and in the interest of fair play, what do you dislike about the way it’s being done in the 21st century?
JPL: I haven’t worked enough as a photographer in the last 10 years to have an objective opinion on that, but if I compare TV from back then to TV now, international news coverage in the United States has completely changed. There used to be American channels where you could see worldwide coverage, live. Today, I see a lot of talk shows of no interest to me and people speaking of events rather than showing documentary footage.
If I want to know what goes on daily in the world today, I turn to Euronews, the BBC or the French channels I get here in NYC. What has happened to the great CNN coverage of the first Gulf War? We seemed to have abandoned the idea that a nation has a responsibility to keep its citizens informed at all times.
In my opinion, coverage of the news in the USA is mediocre and I am very concerned. The people of this country deserve in-depth international coverage and our young people must watch, see, understand, and debate. The USA is involved in many international conflicts. These must be exposed in order to be understood and discussed. However, local news and especially weather and sports seem to be the center of our world, bracketed by 5 minutes of commercials that nobody listens to or watches.
And the photo stories in the magazines, where are they now? Magazines played a role that also seems to have been lost. I remember reading articles and calling my friends to discuss them. Photographs used to have such an impact on the consumption of news: the photos are what made people purchase and read magazines. I miss the photo essays we used to see in LIFE and LOOK and even in TIME and Newsweek.
JC: I've always believed that good photography is about good story telling. What advice could you offer to the young photojournalist that might want to follow in your footsteps?
JPL: The importance to know how to tell a story is critical. My book is essentially made of stories. There are two points in your question; one: being a photographer and two: being a photojournalist.
Today, photography is so much easier. Considerable technical progress has made the camera so easy to handle, so simple and so light. You only need to learn to look and compose to be a photographer nowadays. However, having a camera alone does not make you a photojournalist. The word photography means to write with light. To be a photojournalist is different, you must have certain indispensable attributes. You must be informed and know what you are going to photograph before you photograph it; its importance, its dimensions, its history, and the story into which you feel it best fits.
You must tell the truth in your photographs. You must show the truth in the moment and never lie. You must master your subject by having studied it. A photojournalist must understand politics and economy, have geographical and ecological knowledge, and be tolerant of the other side. A photojournalist must know who is who and where he or she is, have self-confidence and never copy the competition.
The first thing I recommend is that a photojournalist should work very hard at researching stories; imagine and visualize the story you want to photograph. This helps you in your composition and then helps you with the points you are trying to develop. You are always on deadline. Stories never really end for a good photojournalist. They always pick up again. Never ask people to pose for you. They will, anyway, despite you telling them not to. Talk. Talk a lot with people that you photograph. Take their names down…write about them…thank them…and send them prints as well as copies of whatever press the photo appears in.
Never lose the story’s thread. Be patient and understanding. Visit museums and expositions. Open every photography book you can get your hands on; read the press, watch TV and develop your own point of view. A beautiful photo perfectly illustrates a moment in time to the point of becoming timeless, and a well told photo story stays in people’s minds forever.
JC: Besides this book, looking into the future…what would you like the world to remember about Jean-Pierre Laffont?
JPL: Would people remember my photos in 50 years? In 100 years? One or two maybe. We all remember paintings, sometimes even the painter’s name. However, photojournalism has not gained that same level of acceptance as art…so…I would like my family to remember me as someone who loved his work, did it with passion and tried to show what's happening in the world in order to have less injustice.
JC: Do you have any last thoughts you would like to share with our audience that we haven’t covered in our conversation?
JPL: This book was not made by the magic power of these photos. Scanning them and printing them was secondary. The first thing to be done was they had to be sorted through and edited. Knowing how to edit photos is a rare gift. In my opinion, only people who have all the qualities I mentioned, but who are not photographers themselves, are able to do this delicate work. Some editors fall in love with the beauty of a photo and then provide the content the photo is missing by editorializing in a caption. This is not what I believe in so, all photographers need a good editor. I was lucky, I married one.
Eliane founded Gamma and Sygma agencies when traditional photojournalism had high expectations and was in demand. She was working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. She edited every photo I sent back to the agency…even in the heat of the deadlines. 40 years later, she is still finding, discovering, remembering or re-reading stories and patiently looking at thousands upon thousands of photos through a magnifying glass with a new point of view. She is not just a picture editor; she is an editor and knows how to put stories together.
No one could have done it better than Eliane. I want to pay her homage and thank her for having believed in my photos and for orchestrating them all in perfect chronological order. These 3 decades are not only a journey of historical value; it is also our life together. I am very lucky to have met her. I will always be grateful and impressed by her knowledge and her passion for photojournalism. This book would not exist without her.
JP Laffont Website: http://www.jplaffont.com/
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM