Obituary: Robert Doisneau

HIS NAME rhymes appropriately with molneau, the French word for sparrow, writes Peter Hamilton. A small, birdlike and energetic man, Doisneau was, like the sparrows, a familiar denizen of Paris, forever foraging in the streets, picking at the scraps thrown aside by passers- by. His genius was to be able to take the ordinary and the unregarded, and to make them remarkable and fascinating.

Photojournalists like Doisneau are popularly known as chasseurs d'images (picture-hunters), but Doisneau preferred to describe himself as a pecheur d'images (picture-angler). The difference is significant. In order to make 'my' pictures, Doisneau said, 'Il fallait que je me mouillait' - 'I had to 'get wet', to immerse myself in the life of the people whom I was photographing.' Angling was a passion for most of his life, but it is also a metaphor for his photographic method: waiting, sometimes for hours, for his subjects to swim into view. They could be children playing, young couples in love, an old man, a prostitute in an alley, workers plying their crafts. In each case, he liked to 'leave my foot in the door so chance could work its magic'.

As the curator of his Oxford retrospective in 1992, and latterly as his biographer, I came to know Robert Doisneau both as a man and as a photographer. It is clear to me that few other photographers have lived their work in the same way. His pictures are the record of encounters with literally thousands of people, many in the suburbs near his home or in Paris itself, others amongst the literary and artistic elites of modern France, still others in towns and villages all over the country, where his work as a freelance photographer took him. All are the product of a very special vision. They constitute one of the finest and most carefully assembled photographic documentations of the life-history of an entire class ever to be made.

Doisneau was quite happy to acknowledge that his life was 'a series of fortunate or unfortunate encounters. There's not been any plan, just making do from day to day. It wasn't very bright at all.' His willingness to float along with the stream of these friendships and acquaintances none the less generated the occasions to make a very large number of quite remarkable photographs, for these people either took him into their own somewhat extraordinary 'little universes' or put him in touch with the exotic fauna peopling the worlds of literature and the arts. As he once said, with his collection of characters 'I made myself a little theatre.'

Doisneau's theatre was not an entirely private affair, for it depended to a large extent upon his fortuitous encounters and friendships with a whole cast of larger-than-life characters: among them the writer Blaise Cendrars; the cellist and actor Maurice Baquet; the journalist Robert Giraud, with whom he explored the nocturnal delights of Les Halles in the early 1950s; two magazine editors, Pierre Betz (Le Point) and Albert Plecy (Point de Vue); and Jacques Prevert - Surrealist, poet, songwriter, screenwriter and artist. More recently, Doisneau derived considerable creative impetus from his close friendships with the film actress Sabine Azema, and the novelist Daniel Pennac.

During the early 1980s the post- war generation, now in control of the cultural institutions of French society, rediscovered with a certain nostalgia the leading figures of humanist photography. The publication of a retrospective volume, Trois Secondes d'Eternite, in 1979 was followed in 1983 by the Photopoche volume on Doisneau's work (the best-selling title in the series). The first confirmed Doisneau's importance to the photographic establishment, the second introduced him to a large and predominantly youthful audience. A welter of exhibitions, books and articles have followed, and at the end of his life Doisneau became a media figure in his own right - not least because he was an entertaining and amusing speaker, a character who was eminently mediatisable. His personal qualities, of warmth, complicity, humour, made him known via television and radio to a wider, non-photographic public. It also brought him new work for a wide range of magazines, for which his carefully honed portrait technique seemed to be in high demand. Cinema actors in particular loved his approach, and he made some of the best portraits of figures as diverse as Juliette Binoche, Philippe Noiret and Mickey Rourke.

Among the 350,000 or so negatives resting in his archives at Montrouge are tens of thousands which attest to Doisneau's almost obsessive desire to fix moments in the lives of those with whom he felt the greatest affinity: the ordinary people of France. In the last decade they have taken him to their heart: like no other photographer he represents their collective memory, for he captured on film either the France that they knew or the Paris of which they wanted to be a part. They felt, like his close friends, that they knew Robert Doisneau and that he was part of their lives.