It was a “blessed time,” commented the photographer’s wife, Eliane Laffont: a time when photographers needed only to pick up the phone to arrange a photo shoot with one celebrity or another. Stars would themselves initiate the encounters, knowing that being photographed by Laffont opened doors to journals like Paris Match and Jours de France. When traveling to the United States, Brigitte Bardot, Yves Montand, and Charles Aznavour took advantage of Jean-Pierre’s presence in New York to take an afternoon stroll and give free rein to the photographer. “They had total confidence in me; it was extraordinary,” recalls the photographer, noting that his famous subjects never asked to see the photos prior to publication. They would open up completely, without makeup or filters, as can be seen in the picture showing Yves Montand reading a newspaper on a bench in Manhattan, flanked by a homeless man and a kissing couple. This is one of Laffont’s favorite images. “In France at the time Yves Montand would have been too well known to pass unnoticed in the street. But here, in New York, he felt free!”
The Empire State Building
New York and the United States were the photographer’s turf. In addition to covering current news, such as the Vietnam War or civil rights movements, Jean-Pierre Laffont would always take a break to photograph a celebrity, spend a day with them and get an insider’s tour of a place. In 1976, for example, one day he covered a terrible earthquake in Guatemala, and the next returned to New York to meet with the singer Dave for a photo shoot around town. This dichotomy was not necessary, Laffont claims, but it was a welcome change of air. Above all, the sessions with celebrities were an opportunity to redefine his style. Because he often photographed them on the same location—in front of the Empire State Building, as shown in a playful photograph in the book—he needed to modify the shooting angles and invent new ways of framing, unexpected compositions. In a sense, he enjoyed the freedom he did not have when covering more sensitive, darker, more dangerous news topics.
Leonardo da Vinci
What makes his photographs so powerful is that Jean-Pierre Laffont was able to enjoy intimate, privileged moments with the stars. He recalls André Marlaux’s visit to the United States to discuss Mao Zedong with President Nixon. The photographer followed him to a Washington museum which housed the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the United States. In front of the painting, Malraux gave him a history lesson: “He was a fount of knowledge!,” exclaimed Laffont. “This moment will be engraved in my memory. Malraux was extraordinarily well versed in the subject, even better than the museum curators. He knew everything about so many paintings!” A close, intimate bond with the photographed subjects is a thing of the past, as celebrities rely nowadays on their agents to screen and steer photographers. The Laffonts deplore this situation, wondering whether iconic photographs of Hollywood stars of the 1930s, such as those of Marlene Dietrich, would still be possible today, in a world where images of celebrities are subject to strict control.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Nos stars en Amérique, Cartes postales de Jean-Pierre Laffont
Published by Les Éditions de La Martinière