Paris Street – Robert Doisneau

 

Robert Doisneau was one of the “founding fathers” of street photography, best known for his images taken in Paris in the late 1930’s to ‘60’s, though he kept producing good work into the ‘80’s. His Paris contemporaries included Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, André Kertész, and Elliot Erwitt. Doisneau’s images show a marked sense of humanism, an appreciation for the beauty of the mundane, and a sense of humor that has endeared his work to viewers across generations. His image making showed he was a maverick of the time, often pointing out absurdities and ironies of the established norms.

Born on April 14, 1912, in Gentilly, France, Doisneau initially pursued a career in advertising, working as a draftsman and illustrator for various firms in Paris. During this era photography began to be seen as a primary medium both in journalism and advertising, so the door was open for him. During this period, he grew increasingly uninspired as a draftsman and began to experiment with street photography. He demonstrated a natural eye for composition, humor and irony as he wandered the avenues, boulevards, alleys and side streets of his home city. This early work landed him a job as an assistant to advertising photographer André Vigneau in 1929.  In studio he met avant-garde artists and writers who influenced his perceptions that he took to the street. The street was his side-gig while he moved from Vigneau to a job as an industrial photographer for Renault during the 30’s. Gotta pay the bills! Interesting that around the same time in America Margaret Bourke-White was doing industrial photography as well, though of a different ilk.

Doisneau’s work progressed nicely until World War II and Adolf Hitler rudely interrupted. Thus, his interest in photojournalism was thrust into consciousness. He soon found himself working for the French Resistance, taking photos and forging documents throughout the Nazi occupation. In particular, he took photographs of the underground resistance movement of which he was a part, including portraits of resistance fighters and the secret printing presses used to produce anti-Nazi leaflets.

After the war Doisneau tuned to fashion photography and worked for Vogue from 1948-52. Even so he remained steadfastly dedicated to street and documentary photography. Whether training his lens on children at play, women window-shopping, or prominent fellow artists, Doisneau captured his subjects with a combination of humanity and humor, juxtaposing the mundane with the unexpected. “The Suburbs of Paris” became his first published book in 1949. Many volumes followed. All told, Doisneau produced over 450,000 negatives which are today kept by his two daughters. Who knows how many undiscovered or under-appreciated images are yet to surface. To see the current collection please visit Doisneau’s official website.

In addition to his street photography, Doisneau continued to work as a photojournalist throughout his career. He covered various events in France, including the May 1968 riots, the Cannes Film Festival, and even the French Open tennis tournament.

But nothing ever outshone his joyful documentation of life on the streets of Paris for which will always remain his signature work. Among his most iconic images is “Kiss by the Town Hall” taken in 1950 and first published in Life magazine.  It captures a young couple smooching outside the Hôtel de Ville. The shot, semi-arranged, is probably his most famous, having appeared in myriad advertisements, books and films. Doisneau himself never thought it was that special.

Street photography is a testament to being out there, to dedicating your self to what you love to do. Technically, any decent photographer might have taken any of Doisneau shots, but only Doisneau did. Because he was there and looking. Not just in the fraction of a second of the shutter release, but in countless moments leading up to the decisive. Fleeting moments of human connection that are often overlooked in the chaos of everyday life, can be seen or anticipated by the keenly aware. When magic happens it’s rarely about luck. Providence is earned.

Doisneau was also an accomplished portraitist. He loved to shoot the writers, artists, and musicians he knew from his days with Vigneau, and others of course, in a way that displayed their personalities. He spent time with his subjects, quite often on multiple occasions. Establishing these relationships, he felt, was the best way to craft images while at the same time evoking a spontaneous feel. He was both technical and heartfelt, with great attention to detail within his frame, even outside his frame. What was outside the frame could very well influence what was happening with his subjects within the frame.

As a contemporary of Henri Cartier- Bresson, Doisneau was also called a “decisive moment” photographer, a term and a concept Cartier-Bresson made famous. The decisive moment is the art of capturing an action and/or emotion at the instant they conspire to define the subject.

Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson had a complex relationship. They came of age photographically in the tumultuous 30’ and 40’s and were both visually drawn to the streets of Paris. Both men’s work shared a similar aesthetic and approach to composition. However, they also had some key differences in their philosophy of photography, and were not shy about it.

Doisneau was known for his interest in the more whimsical and playful aspects of everyday life, and his photographs often included a sense of humor and irony. Cartier-Bresson took a much more serious approach, and was primarily a journalist and documentarian of deeper aspects of human experience. He had a sense of humor and irony in many of his street images as well, but his journalistic side ruled supreme.

Despite these differences, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson were friendly and respected each other’s work. In 1951 Doisneau even joined Magnum Photos, the agency co-founded by Cartier-Bresson, although he was never a full member of the agency.

Over the years, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson’s relationship became somewhat strained, in part due to their different approaches to photography. Doisneau was sometimes critical of Cartier-Bresson’s focus on the serious and profound aspects of life, and he felt that his own more lighthearted approach was just as valid. Cartier-Bresson, for his part, was sometimes dismissive of Doisneau’s work, which he felt was too focused on the superficial and the trivial. Arguments were never catastrophic, and they remained friends with respectful disagreements. Agreed to disagree, as it were.

But hey, let’s talk more about Carier-Bresson another time, and focus on Doisneau from now until our not so dramatic conclusion. So what about Doisneau’s sense of humor and irony in his image making, which inspired generations of photographers? Let’s pick out a few examples of his images that show his playfulness and wry, thought provoking humor, however subtle. By combining contextual composition with precision shutter timing and subject/action, such images were captured.

We have already touched on “Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville”. Passion on the street that might well have been called today, “Hey, Get a Room!”.  This image captures the quintessential romance of Paris, and the humorous aspects of being public, and  being photographed!

Another photograph that showcases Doisneau’s sense of humor is “The Washerwoman of Place Blanche”, also taken in 1950. It was a good year! The subject is of course a woman doing laundry. She’s in a public washhouse surrounded by other women doing laundry. But there’s a man in a window leering at the ladies! Or is he merely watching and learning how to do his own laundry? Not likely. Imagining riding in on a white horse and rescuing the washerwoman from her drudgery?

Doisneau’s sense of humor and irony were not limited to his street photography, however. He also had a talent for capturing the absurdity and playfulness of everyday objects and situations. For example, his photograph “The Hanging Ball”, taken in 1949, shows a ball suspended in mid-air above a Parisian street, with a group of people looking up in wonder. The image is playful and a wee bit street surreal. Today only children might display the same wonder, and it that sense it might show the lack of sophistication of the time, or perhaps a heightened enjoyment of a simple wonder in the wake of the horrors of World War II.

Irony is a key element in Robert Doisneau’s photography, and it is often expressed through the juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous elements. By capturing contrasting elements together in his images, Doisneau was able to create a sense of tension and humor that was both thought-provoking and visually striking.

One of the most famous examples of Doisneau’s use of irony is a 1955 photograph of a businessman and sexy woman walking. Here we have a respectable man in a suit and tie walking down a busy Paris street as a woman in a short skirt and high heels walks past him. Where are his eyes? Transfixed on her legs! She is either unaware of it or used to it, not wanting to give him any ideas by outwardly noticing him, even negatively. The photograph is ironic in that it captures the man’s lusty gaze, while also exposing the hypocrisy of his gentlemen’s attire. I don’t know, is that hypocrisy? Or reality? Either way it is amusing and a decisive moment capture.

Then there is one of my favorites, and of many men, who can see themselves as the man window shopping with his wife. The photograph in question, “Man Looking at a Nude Painting,” also know by other titiles, shows a woman looking at a particular painting the viewer cannot see, while the man is looking over at another – a nude of a female model from behind. (The shot was part of a series. Doisneau set up his camera inside the art shop and just waited for passersby to stop and react). The woman appears to be quite serious and contemplative, assuming the man  is as engaged in her painting as she is.  What she doesn’t know is what we can see. The man is not listening, having found something of far more interest to him! Overall, the photograph captures a lighthearted moment of everyday life, and the humor arises from the subtle interactions between the people in the scene.

This type of humor relies on the viewer’s ability to see the absurdity in the situation, and it is a hallmark of Doisneau’s style, which often captured everyday moments with a whimsical and lighthearted tone.  Many are more subtle than this one.

In other photographs, Doisneau used irony to highlight the contrasts between different social classes and cultural groups. For example, his photograph “Le Banquet des Victimes de la Faim” (The Banquet of the Victims of Hunger), taken in 1983, shows a group of homeless people sitting down to a formal dinner in a public square. Here the irony is obvious, and possibly purposeful – poverty vs the extravagance of the privileged few.

Doisneau’s use of irony was characterized by a keen sense of observation and an  understanding of the complexities of human behavior. He had many exhibitions and received numerous awards during his long career, and here are just a few:

  • In 1956, Doisneau was awarded the Prix Niépce, which is the oldest and most prestigious photography award in France.
  • In 1983, he was awarded the Grand Prix National de la Photographie in recognition of his contribution to the medium.
  • In 1991, he received the Legion of Honour, the highest civilian honor in France.

Exhibitions:

  • In 1951, Doisneau’s work was included in the “Five French Photographers” exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, which helped to establish his reputation outside of France.
  • In 1979, the Centre Pompidou in Paris organized a major retrospective of Doisneau’s work, which featured over 500 photographs.
  • In 2012, the Musée de la Photographie in Charleroi, Belgium, organized a major exhibition of Doisneau’s work, which included some of his most iconic images.

As you might imagine, sales of his images can fetch quite a price.

  • The most expensive Doisneau photograph ever sold is “Le Remorqueur du Champ de Mars” (The Tugboat of the Champ de Mars), which sold for €423,200 at an auction in 2016.
  • Other top-selling Doisneau images include “Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville” (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville), which sold for $225,000 in 2005, and “Les Amoureux de la Bastille” (Lovers at the Bastille), which sold for $194,500 in 2017.
  • In total, Doisneau’s top 10 most expensive photographs have sold for a combined total of over $1.5 million. Not exactly Gursky money, but not bad!

Here are some of Doisneau’s best quotes, according to me!

“The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.”

“There are days when the simple act of seeing appears to be true happiness.”

“A photographer who made a picture from a splendid moment, an accidental pose of someone or a beautiful scenery, is the finder of a treasure.”

“People like my photos because they see in them what they would see if they stopped rushing about and took the time to enjoy the city.”

“The world that I was trying to show was a world where I would have felt at peace, where people would be pleasant, and where I would find the kindness I wished to receive. My photographs were proof that such world could exist.”

“A hundredth of a second here, a hundredth of a second there – even if you put them end to end, they still only add up to one, two, perhaps three seconds, snatched from eternity.”

“Chance is the one thing you can’t buy. You have to pay for it and you have to pay for it with your life, spending a lot of time, you pay for it with time, not the wasting of time but the spending of time.”

“I’m not a collector at heart. I’m never tormented by the longing to possess things. I’m quite happy with my pictures. I’ve been cohabiting with them for years now and we know each other inside out, so I feel I’m entitled to say that pictures have a life and a character of their own. Maybe they’re like plants they won’t really flourish unless you talk to them. I haven’t gone that far – not yet anyway. Lots of them behave like good little girls and give me a nice smile whenever I walk past, but others are real bitches and never miss any opportunity to ruin my life. I handle them with kid gloves.”

“The advantage we have, compared to painters and writers, is that we never lose contact with the rough side of life. It is a lesson in humility and it keeps us from some pitfalls. But above all it nourishes us.”

“Life is short. Break the rules. Forgive quickly. Kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that made you smile!”

To wrap… Robert Doisneau was a rare talent who became a master of a craft he was instrumental in developing. He was a pioneer, and his work helped to establish the medium of photography as legitimate, both as life and as art, expressed simultaneously. Art is everywhere, if you only know how to see it. His images show a clear love of humanity and a desire to improve it. His sense of humor and irony has endeared viewers across generations, and continues to inspire and influence photographers in the 21st century.

Skrig Underball Written by:

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