Robert Doisneau: A window into the soul of Paris
Tramps, showgirls, little scamps staring at toys in longing wonder... Robert Doisneau captured the French capital in all its dirty glory, writes the Independent's man in the French capital, John Lichfield
Sunday 05 December 2010
Paris is frozen, unchanging and forever unmistakably itself. Paris has disappeared, demolished by tourism, sand-blasting, gentrification and the social gerrymandering of Jacques Chirac. Both clichés are true. Like photographs – and the word "clichés" can also mean "snaps" in French – everything depends on your point of view.
Robert Doisneau, the photo-poet of the Paris of the 1950s, would have hated the Paris of 2010. He was already pretty gloomy about the Paris of the 1970s and 1980s. There are no more "nooks and crannies," he complained. "Clutter has been outlawed."
A wonderful selection of his photographs, put together by his two daughters, with Doisneau's own commentaries, has been published in soft covers in English for the first time. The 560 images extend from the 1940s to the 1980s, but the later ones are clouded with anger, puzzlement and loss. There is little of the humour, the joie de vivre, the seediness, the ' gentle melancholy or the energy of the earlier photographs of street and park scenes in the tatty, post-war Paris.
Doisneau's best-known work is The Kiss: the image of a pair of young lovers snogging in front of the Paris town hall in 1950 which adorned a million student bedrooms from the 1980s. He never liked the photograph, perhaps because he had posed it, as he had to confess when it became the subject of two lawsuits in the early 1990s. The more typical Doisneau images of the 1950s are unposed, but painstakingly stalked and framed – shots of children, prostitutes or market porters, and other street-dwellers in the unfashionable, unswept parts of town.
Doisneau (1912-1994) began his career as an industrial photographer for Renault. He was, at various times, a news photographer, a fashion photographer and a war photographer. Almost all of his best-known images were taken with a Leica in his spare time, or while playing hooky from employers, on long rambles around Paris. He would often find a location, or a "stage" as he called it, and lie in wait for many hours for the right action or characters to arrive.
He once said: "I don't photograph life as it is, but life as I would like it to be." There is a morose jokiness about his best images: men peeing in a fragile pissoir, surrounded by a teeming market; faces, captured unawares, gazing at a nude ' portrait in a shop window. They recall another great French chronicler of changing times, the film-maker Jacques Tati.
Doisneau is especially fond of the street games of children, which have now vanished entirely. One of his best, later images, from 1978, shows a chaotic crocodile of four-year-olds passing in front of angry, stationary rows of traffic on the Rue de Rivoli. It looks as though the cars are about to eat up the children – as, of course, they have.
When I first visited Paris, at the age of 14, in 1964, Doisneau's city still existed. Many of the buildings were black and crumbling. The people were rude. The buses looked as though they had been brought out of a museum.
The next time I visited, in 1978, I was working overnight at the French news agency AFP. The buildings were no longer black and crumbling; the people were just as rude. The wholesale markets of Les Halles – the subject of some of the finest shots in the Doisneau book – had been demolished and replaced with a hole in the ground. Paris was still, in parts, a gritty town, recognisably the home of Edith Piaf or a dozen black-and-white gangster movies. On the Rue Saint Denis, the prostitutes were so thick on the ground in the late 1970s that they could have linked arms like a giant chorus line.
When I returned to Paris as a foreign correspondent in 1996, much had changed. As mayor from 1977, Jacques ' Chirac had pushed immigrants and poor whites out of large parts of the city. Paris was cleaner. It was safer. It was prettier. More polite. Duller.
That process has continued over the past 14 years. Great icons of Parisian eccentricity and authenticity, such as the Samaritaine department store, have vanished. President Nicolas Sarkozy has driven the ladies of the night from the Rue Saint Denis into the two Bois or into cheap hotels.
Doisneau, one has the impression, knew that all this would happen. His 1950s and 1960s photographs have a kind of mournful joyousness, like images of vanishing species or of condemned buildings before the bulldozers move in. He photographed Paris as he wanted it to be but as he knew it was already ceasing to exist. The post-Doisneau Paris, scrubbed and gentrified, is more beautiful, perhaps, than ever. It is a great city for tourists, for the well-off, for the middle-aged. It is not only young Parisians who find it a little dull.
'Robert Doisneau: Paris' is published by Flammarion (£17.95)
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