Obituary: Robert Doisneau
Saturday 02 April 1994
WHEN Robert Doisneau photographed two lovers kissing in a Paris street for Life magazine in 1950, he created an image of post- war France which has retained its central place in a modern urban iconography. Forty years on, Doisneau's vision of France and the French has retained its beguiling and populist appeal, making real the elusive fantasies of the romantic metropolis. 'My photographs,' Doisneau wrote in 1986, 'show the world as I would like it to be.'
Doisneau spent his childhood in the Paris suburb of Gentilly, born into a world of craftsmen and artisans. At the age of 13, he enrolled on a lithography course at the Ecole Estienne and seemed destined to take his place in that same society. Though mechanical and unsatisfying, lithography opened the door to a world of art and design which liberated Doisneau from the claustrophobic world of the petit-bourgeoisie. By the end of the Twenties, he was working at the graphics studio Atelier Ullmann, and had begun to make his first experiments in photography. When Doisneau abandoned advertising, and in 1931 took an assistant's job with the modernist photographer Andre Vigneau, he discovered an exhilarating new cultural arena.
He bought a light, small-format camera and began to work on the Paris streets, where he found the vigour and humour which was to inform his photography for the next six decades. Doisneau was fascinated by the Parisians who lived and worked around him. He pictured them in their own inimitable cityscape, constructing a narrative which paid homage to the ordinary. Through Doisneau's eyes, Paris became a magic circus of occasion and event: an impromptu game of football becomes a decorous exercise in acrobatics, a fallen horse in the road the centre of an accidental carnival.
But it was his appointment as staff photographer at the Renault car factory in 1934 which intensified Doisneau's interest in working people and gave his work a defined politic which went far beyond the quirky storytelling of earlier photographs. He became an active and committed trade-unionist. Interviewed in 1991 by his biographer Peter Hamilton, he admitted that the years at Renault marked both 'the true beginning of my career as a photographer, and the end of my youth'. Though the politics of factory life excited and inspired him, the strict discipline and often mundane work of the photography studio was oppressive and unfulfilling. Doisneau had already glimpsed the possibilities of freelance photoreportage; in 1939, he joined the new and radical agency Rapho and travelled throughout France in search of picture stories. Although the outbreak of the Second World War and the subsequent Nazi occupation of Paris brought Doisneau's embryonic photojournalistic career to a sudden halt, he continued to work, producing a series of postcards illustrating the life of Napoleon, photographing notable scientists, and making forged papers for the French Resistance.
Though frustrated as a photographer, his devotion to the cause of the Left was never more intense. In his beleaguered and isolated country, where personal and political loyalties were stretched to their limits, Doisneau's commitment to his homeland became trenchant. When the war was over, while many of his contemporaries set out to become photojournalists on an international scale, Doisneau continued to make an obsessive and meticulous record of everyday life in France. He joined the agency Alliance- Photo and began to work for the many picture magazines which prospered in post-war France. He became close to the leftist editor Pierre Courtade and the writer Blaise Cendrars, both of whom encouraged him to continue his street photography. His collaboration with Cendrars on the book La Banlieue de Paris (1949) was a milestone in his evolution as a photographer; Doisneau's fascination with the desolate hinterlands of Paris, their industrial structures, shifting populations and bleak landscapes had never been more evident.
In 1949, Doisneau was contracted by Vogue magazine to work as a fashion photographer. Though Vogue's editors believed that he would bring a fresh, more casual look to the fashion pages, Doisneau felt uneasy with his necessarily glamorous new photographs of beautiful women in elegant surroundings. When he could escape from the studio, he photographed ever more energetically in the Paris streets. He formed vital associations with the poet Jacques Prevert and the writer Robert Giraud, and began to extend and poeticise the allegory of urban life which had become his main aesthetic concern. During the mid-Fifties, intrigued by the exotic milieu of writers and artists, he embarked upon a series of portraits of French cultural figures.
Still haunted by the ghosts of the Occupation, the spectres of collaboration, Paris in the Fifties was more insular than in pre-war times. The departure of many of its expatriates, Jewish and radical Left communities had deprived it of much of its intellectual force. Doisneau's photographs were an assertion of his firm belief in the continuing centrality of French art and ideas. He was careful to place his subjects against backdrops which were typically Parisian, a crowded cafe or a flower-filled balcony; like actors on a film set they played the roles which Doisneau (and tradition) had assigned them in his continuing metropolitan drama.
In the mid-Forties, Doisneau had rejoined the revitalised Rapho agency, recommencing a partnership which continued for the rest of his life. With Rapho, he was able to extend his photojournalistic practice, accepting assignments which took him all over France. He sold photo-stories internationally, most significantly to the mass-circulation Life magazine in the United States. International recognition came too from his inclusion in a group exhibition in 1951 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he showed photographs alongside his fellow French documentarists Brassai, Willy Ronis and Izis.
If the Fifties were Doisneau's heyday, then the Sixties were to be his wilderness years. Weary of gentle humanism, editors began to look for a raw reportage which would more accurately convey the sense of a new social climate. All over Europe, the old-style picture magazines were closing as television engrossed the public's attention. But Doisneau continued to work, producing books for children and returning to advertising photography and celebrity portraiture.
The international revival of interest during the early Seventies in the history of photography led in turn to a 'rediscovery' of Robert Doisneau's photographs. In the brash, consumerist Eighties, Doisneau's wry observations of Parisian life became popular with a new, younger audience. It had an apparent innocence, an intimation of romance. When Doisneau visited London for an exhibition of his work at Hamilton's Gallery in 1990, BBC 2's modish arts programme The Late Show interviewed him at length and in 1992 the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford mounted a comprehensive and well-attended retrospective exhibition.
But documentary is a suspect business. Photojournalism, with all its claims for veracity, is as much a construct as a well-crafted piece of fiction. The most successful photojournalists (and their editors) become old hands at pleasing the public, and Robert Doisneau proved to be no exception to this rule.
In the summer of 1993, an elderly French couple, Jean-Louis and Denise Lavergne, insisting they had been the embracing couple whose passion had been captured in his 1950 photograph The Kiss, went to a French court to claim their share in the earnings from Doisneau's immortal piece of street 'reportage'. By the time they began litigation, the photograph had earned over pounds 50,000 in print sales alone, not to mention reproduction fees for many thousands of posters, postcards and even a jigsaw.
The Lavergnes' lawsuit eventually led Doisneau to reveal that the young lovers in The Kiss were actors hired to pose for the picture, under his direction. The young models, Francoise Bornet and Jacques Carteaud, now in their sixties, also pressed for proceeds from the sales of the photograph.
Purists were shocked by the news, as were the many photographers who make their livings by observing private moments and turning them into mass-market reportage. For those whose lives had not included a passionate kiss in the spring sunlight of a Paris street the news that this idyll was no more than a fashion shot came as something of a relief. True romantics and print collectors were dismayed.
Photographers, as the case over The Kiss so magnificently proves, are pragmatic magicians, mixing real life with fantasy and desire. With style, panache and a certain cunning Robert Doisneau showed us not the 'real' Paris, but rather the one which we had always believed was really there.
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