New York City Down and Out, by Jean-Pierre Laffont

November 6, 2018

Printed by Picto

In the 1960s and 70s, New York was dirty and dangerous. This same period also saw the creativity of the counterculture movement, the vibrancy of the sexual revolution, the birth of civil rights, gay and women’s movements. These contradictions inspired photojournalist Jean-Pierre Laffont to document it all, showing the excitement, tragedy and humanity of the city then. In an essay entitled “New York As I Lived It”, he tells us about his experiences, currently on view in an exhibition at the Leica Store in New York.

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 it was the United States that 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.

Bronx, New York City, NY. July 20th 1972. Members of the New York street gang Savage Skulls. The trademark of the, primarily Puerto Rican, gang was a sleeveless denim jacket with a skull and crossbones design on the back. Based around Fox Street, in the popular South Bronx neighborhood, the gang declared war on the drug dealers that operated in the area. Running battles were frequent with rival gangs Seven Immortals, and Savage Nomads. © Jean Pierre Laffont

In the 1960s, New York was dirty and dangerous. There was pornography on 42nd Street 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 returned 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 to 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.

Manhattan, New York, NY. October, 1975. Two homeless men squat in the shadow of the recently completed World Trade Center. New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy and World Trade Center sat largely vacant, unable to find companies to fill it’s large office spaces. © Jean Pierre Laffont
Tombs Prison, New York. November 1st, 1972. Hands from behing the bars at Toms Prison. Standing on Center Street at Leonard Street, and was built in 1840 with granite from the old Bridewell Prison in City Hall. © Jean Pierre Laffont

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.

July 16, 1969., Cape Kennedy, Florida, USA. Photographer JP Laffont minutes before the Launch of Apollo 11 at Kennedy Space Center ready to photograph the enthusiasm of the crowd. The launch of Apollo XI took place behind him which he wouldnt see. © Jean Pierre Laffont

Jean-Pierre Laffont

For more than five decades, Jean Pierre Laffont traveled the globe, covering the news, the people, and the social and economic issues of his time. His photos were published in the world’s leading news magazines such as Time or Paris Match. He also was a founding member of the Gamma USA and Sygma Photo News agencies.


Jean-Pierre Laffont, New York Down and Out
November 8 – December 31, 2018
Leica Store
460 W Broadway
New York, NY 10012


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