I was born in French Algeria, grew up in Morocco, and studied photography in Switzerland before finding work as a photographer of movie stars in Paris. What I wanted to be, however, was a photojournalist. And the United States fascinated me. Starting in 1964, I made New York my home, seeking to document as wide a range of compelling American stories as possible, and to visually capture the spirit of the times.
In the 1960s, New York was dirty and dangerous. There was pornography on 42ndStreet and violence in the subway. I did in-depth photo essays of the rise of the World Trade Center, the gangs in the Bronx, and the chaos in Times Square. It looked like everyone was in the streets protesting. Nothing seemed impossible. I photographed the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll generation, the rise of counterculture, the birth of gay rights, the women’s revolution, and the civil rights movement. The astronauts of Apollo XI returning from the moon, and people wore astronaut helmets and three hundred tons of confetti made from torn-up telephone books rained down from office windows. In 1980s, the Statue of Liberty had a facelift. Before animal rights raised awareness, a flamboyant crowd went to Madison Square Garden for the Fight of the Century. Muhammad Ali changed his legal name from Cassius Clay (which he called his “slave name”). New York became the new capital of the art world. French artists and musicians, like Gilbert Becaud, came to sing at Carnegie Hall.
It was an exciting time, yet this period was darkened by the unacceptable conditions of life in prison. There were also the devastating tragedies of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. The American people no longer trusted their government. There was a shift in the American consciousness, and from New York I was able to capture it.
I loved New York, but it was a tough city to love. The violence, the run-down buildings, the junkyards, the graffiti in the Bronx, and there were the beggars in the streets, homeless men and women in the park, the controversial construction of the World Trade Center. The permanently busy streets with dangerous corners, construction sites everywhere. Constant noise! It was a frenetic town, “the City that never sleeps”.
Yes it is a tough city. New York is not for the faint of heart. It could be fun and could make you cry. It is organized and chaotic, gritty and sophisticated, attractive and repulsive, cruel and tender, dirty and clean. You like it one day and hate it for the rest of the week. It is forever changing yet always stay the same. It is beautiful, yet ugliness is around the corner. Everything is up and down, and down and out again.
Jean-Pierre Laffont – New York Down and Out
November 8 – December 31, 2018
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