Manhattan, New York - Circa 1977. Eliane's Sygma office, located on 322 West 72nd Street, with a wall of different covers of magazine. Photograph taken by JP Laffont.
Manhattan, New York - Circa 1980. Eliane Laffont at Sygma office, at 225 West 57st. Photograph by Douglas Kirkland.
Brooklyn, New York, the summer of 1966. The ghettos of Brooklyn and the Bronx are considered the most dangerous areas of NYC.
Manhattan, New York, June 2013. Eliane and Jean Pierre Laffont in their studio editing the photographs for the book Photographers Paradise (Glitterati Incorporated, Fall 2014). The suitcase moved around the world with Jean Pierre Laffont. Photo by Sam Matamoros.
There is only one Eliane Laffont, she is a woman of vision with a heart for adventure and a passion for photography. She, who would have been a writer, had she not married Jean-Pierre Laffont a French photojournalist. Destiny had other plans for Laffont, as she found herself creating a dynamic space for photojournalism in the United States marketplace. She came from Paris with the work of six photographers in tow, and she launched the U.S. operation of Gamma Agency from the highest throne.
Laffont recalls, “Only in America can this happen. My first day at work, I bought a copy of Time magazine on the street, I looked at the masthead and called the first name: Henry Grunwald, Editor in Chief at the time. His assistant clarified that I should speak with the director of photography. She said, ‘Hold on, I’m going to connect you,’ and because the call came from Mr. Grunwald’s office, I was given an appointment that day. I called at 10:30 in the morning and at 3:00 in the afternoon I was meeting with John Durniak.
“It was 1968. Those were the interesting years. Look and Life magazines had closed and John Durniak wanted to re-create the big picture stories and photo essays at Time Magazine. He also wanted to develop the international pages. And this is exactly what I showed him that day: the war in Vietnam, the students' unrest in Paris, the 6-day war in Israel, the agricultural reform in Chile, Lebanon, Iran... I showed him black and white prints and he looked at them all very slowly in silence. After ten minutes, he turned to me and said, 'Who are you?'
“I represent Gamma's photographers, the new French agency". He told me he was going to give me a guarantee. I asked what a guarantee was. He said that every week I should come show him the photographs first. He didn’t know that I knew nobody else. I said,"Okay". The guarantee he offered was $500 a month. It seemed to me so little for such great photographs and even though I had no idea of the price of photography I said, "$5,000". He laughed and said, "We have a deal" and shook my hand. I had my first deal the first day in the business and with Time magazine.
“Every week I went back to see him and very soon the international pages of the magazine were filled with Gamma's photographs. I was very lucky because I learned with and from the best photographers of my generation. We were all 20 years old and Gamma was the school where I learned photography. I learned processing and editing from my husband Jean-Pierre.
“Because I was at Time magazine every day, I started working with the art director, the photo team, the journalists. I got to see how you put a magazine together. Through them I became a journalist and a photo editor. But soon selling photographs was not enough for me. I wanted more. I wanted to produce photo stories with the photographers. I started developing their portfolios so that we could sell the photographer, as opposed to the photographs.
“In 1973 Gamma's team split and some of us started Sygma. Because Gamma continued with a different team, all of a sudden I was no longer the only kid on the block. We now had competition. At Sygma I became a partner. I wanted Sygma to be a large agency. I felt there were other things to be developed besides the news. I loved people stories, human-interest stories, ordinary people doing extraordinary things, as well as celebrity stories. Our stories were informative, educational and touching. I did not see any difference between telling the story of a farmer in Chile and Katherine Hepburn on the set of her last movie.
“We opened an office in Los Angeles and started to photograph a lot of celebrities and movie stars. Because at that time publicists did not exist, we could work with the actors, actresses, directors, very freely and directly. This part of the business turned out to be very lucrative. We wereVthe pioneers in celebrity journalism. There again I was lucky. At the same time, Time Inc. had started People magazine with a brilliant editor Richard Stolley former editor of Life. People magazine became our main client.
“Because I come from a family of doctors, I was also very interested in science, so we developed scientific stories, doctors, new technologies in medicine. Every department of Sygma had its own editor; it was in a way a virtual magazine where we covered different sections and we expanded photojournalism in every aspect of life. Another one of my dreams was to have the largest photo library of contemporary history. I wanted Sygma to become the place that would have it all, no matter what. So we "recuperated" stories we did not produced. We covered every possible subject except paparazzi photos, because we did not want to jeopardize our relationships with the celebrities. But I’ve always had a weakness for paparazzi work.
“Sygma by then was both very successful and profitable. And I was having a lot of fun with it all. Yet, I didn’t do it just for the money. I really loved what I was doing. Reflecting on my life and all those years, I profoundly believe photography and photojournalism are essential professions and society can not afford not to have them, just as I believe the same of teachers, doctors, and artists.
“Twenty-five years ago, I envisioned contemporary photojournalism being in a museums, and it is happening now. Jean-Pierre Laffont will be at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in 2015.”
Manhattan, New York - August 20, 1992. Eliane Laffont receiving the Leica Medal of Excellence for Photography Books. Photo taken by Claire Holt.