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Gamma, A story of photographers


Gamma: A story of photographers, a story of an agency, one of the best. An Éditions de la Martinère book (Gamma : Une histoire de photographes) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It is astounding. The texts by Hubert Henrotte and Floris de Bonneville are sumptuous. Each week, L’Œil de la Photographie will publish some of the images from what was the golden era of photojournalism.

Founded in 1966, by photographers, for photographers, this new agency was to become a world leader within a few months. “Six new photographers, six new views of the world,” was Gamma’s slogan. From its creation, Gamma knew to develop and highlight photojournalism to be informative, to anticipate the news by bringing a personal view on the events. 300,000 black and white contacts and 200,000 color selections produced by 5,000 photographers were made over five decades. The real journalistic richness this publication possesses is its quintessence. It presents the work of those who really created, constructed, and developed the agency, a company often copied but never matched. All of Gamma’s major photos are in this book. Just like the major photographers who contributed to its history. Today, L’Œil de la Photographie is publishing a selection of Jean-Pierre Laffont’s best photographs, with a text below by Eliane, his wife and former director of the US bureau of Gamma.

The Gamma years were my entry into what is now known as the “Golden Age” of photojournalism. An extraordinary life was about to begin for me notwithstanding that nothing had prepared me to work in the world of photography. Jean-Pierre was hired by Gamma as the first permanent foreign correspondent in the United States in January 1969, and on July 21 of that same year, the day after the historic lunar landing by American astronauts, founder and director Hubert Henrotte offered me the opportunity to represent Gamma in New York.

The Paris based agency sold its photos in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Great Britain through already established local agencies, but Gamma had no presence in the Unites States, and magazines didn’t know who we were. The name Gamma being unknown made it impossible for Jean-Pierre to obtain press accreditations to allow him to cover important events. The American market was yet to be conquered.

I accepted Hubert’s proposal and the American Gamma office was born in my living room! I was not to receive a salary from Gamma; I worked on speculation. No paycheck, and all expenses were my own responsibility. I received a 30% commission on the sale of the photos. This formula worked for me, as I didn’t want to be anyone’s employee, I wanted to be free.

The years that followed were nothing short of heroic. Everything changed in record time. In less than a year, our photos filled the pages of American newspapers. My professional life had begun. I was bursting with energy and I learned everything very quickly: how to sell the stories, become a journalist, edit photos, build stories, write captions, and get assignments. I even learned how to do layouts alongside the art-directors of Time and Newsweek.

America was going through a turbulent time and I relished editing Jean-Pierre’s photos. Occasionally I accompanied him on his shoots: the violence of 42nd street, prostitution, the gangs in the Bronx, the woman’s liberation and gay rights movements, the astronauts return from the moon, the printing of the dollar. I went with him to Washington DC, to cover protests against the Vietnam war and hippy demonstrations, racial problems and the Ku Klux Klan, and all the electoral campaigns with the departure of Nixon, and the assassinations of Bob Kennedy and of Martin Luther King. Jean-Pierre covered them all, and through his photos, I discovered this country and learned to love it.

In 1973 Hubert Henrotte, Monique Kouznetzoff, Jean-Pierre and I, and many photographers embarked on a new adventure to create a new agency: Sygma. When I look at Jean-Pierre’s photos today, I can say that they bear witness to the first big adventure of our life together in the world called Gamma.

Eliane Laffont

Eliane Laffont is the former director of the US office of Gamma, which she founded in 1968 with Jean-Pierre Laffont, and the former director of another famous agency, Sygma, which she headed from 1973 for nearly thirty years.


Gamma, Une histoire de photographes
Published by La Martinière

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