By Michael Martin
If there ever were a front-row seat to history, photojournalist Jean-Pierre Laffont would occupy several. The new monograph Photographer’s Paradise, which collects his work from the ’60s through the ’80s, is of breathtaking scope. The 79-year-old photographer captured much of the country’s most severe turbulence: protests, assassinations, and the meteoric rise of gay liberation.
An affecting and sweet oasis in the book is Laffont’s ’60s-era photo-essay of New York transvestites.* Walking home one day, he saw a gay couple embracing on the steps of their building. “They said, ‘You a photographer? Want to take a picture of us?’ ” Laffont recalls. “I said, ‘Why not?’ ”
After Laffont delivered the prints, “they said, ‘You want to meet our friends? We live in the building, and we are homosexual. We dress as women at night, and this is how we make our living. Come meet us.” Laffont went from room to room in the five-story building, photographing its residents; his shots depict them vamping for the camera, preparing their exterior illusions, and throwing an impromptu fashion show on the roof. “It was very moving for me. They were extraordinary people,” Laffont recalls. “I was so close to them. We were hugging each other when we left. I didn’t want to exploit them, but they didn’t ask me anything. They did not tell me, ‘Don’t publish this picture.’ ”
Even more notable than the photos is their backstory: In 1950s Morocco, Laffont’s stepfather became one of the first doctors to perform male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. As a young man, Laffont photographed his stepfather’s first operation and spent much time around the patients in the hospital. He was deeply affected by them. “They were extraordinarily sensitive and funny,” he says. “Extremely sensitive to so many things, and extremely loving to each other. There was a lot of joy there.”
In the mid-’60s, Laffont moved from Paris to the United States, where he would eventually co-found a major photo agency, Sygma, with his wife, Eliane. Traveling cross-country, he chronicled a nation in upheaval and a number of gay milestones. In 1970, he documented the first Gay Pride parade in New York City; his photos were published around the world.
“It was very nice for me to see them completely sharing the gay movement,” says Laffont. “They wanted to be photographed. They were so proud of what they had. They were kissing each other, they were naked. It was a day of happiness.”
In 1982, Laffont photographed the first Gay Olympics. “In San Francisco at that time, you had gay people kissing in the street, very open, very strong,” he says. “The Gay Olympics was a very serious crowd. They were fiercely good at what they did, fantastic athletes.”
The book also contains Laffont’s incredible photo stories of youth gangs in the Bronx, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral, the Summer Jam music festival in upstate New York (bigger than Woodstock, with 600,000 attendees), and inmates at Rikers Island. It will go down as one of the seminal works of photojournalism, and Laffont deserves all the credit for ensuring that gay landmarks are part of it. “I just tried to cover them honestly,” he says.
*Editor’s note: The term transvestite reflects the language preferred by Laffont and used in the period in question.