"The first American he ever saw fell out of the sky,” Donald S. Connery writes in the introduction to “L’Americain: A Photojournalist’s Life,” the memoir of professional photographer John Launois published last month by Prospecta Press.
A French native who moved to the U.S. soon after World War II, Launois never forgot the sight of that American flyboy parachuting into Nazi-occupied France in 1943. It is the reason why in 1954, when faced with either being drafted or returning to Europe, Launois became a U.S. citizen and joined the Army.
“My father could have gone back to France, but he felt an emotional debt to America,” said Chris Pan Launois, John’s son and co-writer of “L’Americain.” “He served for two years and then he joined the Air Force Reserve. He loved the U.S., and essentially this book is my father’s parting gift to America.”
If you haven’t heard of Launois, you’ve still seen his pictures. His images of Malcolm X, The Beatles, Charles de Gaulle and Bob Dylan made him one of the top freelance photographers of the 1960s and 1970s.
‘Photojournalism by John Launois’
WHAT: A presentation by Chris Pan Launois at the Schenectady Photographic Society
WHERE: First United Methodist Church, 603 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.schenectadyphotographicsociety.com
His son, a musician who finished the book after his father’s death in 2002, will offer a presentation and slide show of John Launois’ work Wednesday night at 7:30 at the First United Methodist Church in Schenectady. The event, sponsored by the Schenectady Photographic Society, is free and open to the public.
A lot of stories
“This has been one long road,” Launois said, referring to the book. “From start to finish to being published, it took about 17 years. Everyone would tell my father, ‘Write your memoirs,’ and he would say, ‘Yeah, Ok.’ But it took him years to research his own life. We actually did start by him telling me stories and me writing them down, but once we got started he was able to start writing his own notes and then give them to me. He had a lot of stories, anecdotes and adventures.”
John Launois left France in 1950 with a borrowed camera and $50 in his pocket.
“France during World War II was a humiliating place to grow up,” said Chris Launois. “People lost their freedom under Nazi rule. Jews were sent to death camps and French workers were sent off to labor camps. My father grew up in poverty, and I think that whole scenario kind of created a rebel in him.”
Chris’ father originally had plans to become a poet, but discarded them for the more practical profession of photojournalism.
“He dreamt of writing poetry and riding across America,” said Chris Launois, who lives in the New York City area. “That wasn’t really realistic, so he ended up expressing the poetry in his heart and his mind through photojournalism.”
Launois worked as a vacuum cleaner salesman and a gas station attendant, and learned how to take pictures. By the 1960s, he was a highly sought-after photographer traveling the world during the “golden age” of magazines.
“He was a freelance artist, and kept his copyright his whole life, but it was “Life Magazine” that really gave him his dream,” said Chris Launois. “That was his start, and then it was The Saturday Evening Post, and everything was first class after that.”
While he was serving in the U.S. Army in Japan, Launois met a Japanese woman named Yukiko. The two fell in love, eventually were married, and ten years later in January of 1964 Chris was born. The marriage didn’t last, but the couple remained friendly after going through a divorce. Launois married his second wife, an Austrian woman named Sigrid in 1979.
“My father was a lucky man,” said Launois. “My mom never put him down in front of me, and she remained amicable with him. They divorced after 17 years of marriage, but she always wanted things to be right for him. In the early ’70s, when all the great crusading magazines were being killed by television, my father’s life spiraled downward, and it was basically Sigrid that helped him get his life back together.”
Both Yukiko and Sigrid were instrumental in the writing of the book, especially after John’s death. Also a major factor was Connery, the former Time-Life Moscow bureau chief who wrote the introduction.
“Sigrid and my mom became friends and, after my father’s death, we all became very close,” said Launois. “The three of us kind of banded together to make sure the book got finished, along with Don Connery. We made sure we got through it to help my father keep his promise to America. I remember him telling me how, thinking as a young boy, it was amazing that these people, these soldiers, came from across the Atlantic to help France. He really felt a debt to this country and that’s why he wanted to do the book .”
Promoting the book
Chris Pan Launois has been a musician most of his life and goes by the name of Chris Pan. Among the favorite images taken by his father — and most of them are in the book — are photos of Malcolm X and The Beatles.
“I love The Beatles, and yes, I’m always looking at Malcolm X on my wall, kind of returning his nod,” said Launois. “Perhaps my favorite, though, is the picture he took of a Japanese monk for National Geographic. That’s a beautiful photograph.”
Launois is just starting an extensive tour to sell the book — including a recent stop at Fox News — and Kim Koza of the Schenectady Photographic Society said her group is thrilled to have him speak here.
“For those of us that remember shooting with film, we have a great appreciation for the time and talent it took to be a highly successful shooter ‘back in the day,’ so it will be wonderful to see and hear about the work John so successfully produced,” said Koza. “We at SPS are delighted share the works of John Launois.”