“The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.” So said Robert Doisneau, the extraordinary pioneer of photojournalism and today still famous around the world for his iconic photographs including his signature photograph “Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville”.
Born April 14 1912 in Gentilly, in the Paris suburbs, he trained as lithographer and worked as a photographer for Renault but was fired for repeatedly being late for work! He decided to follow his dream of working as a freelance photographer and the rest as they say is history. With his trusty Leica he walked the streets of pre and post war France and Paris taking photographs of everyday life and everyday people – his images though are anything but every day. They are fun yet compelling, black and white photographs which mixed up people from different social classes and from different backgrounds. Shots taken in Paris streets and cafes that are sometimes mocking, sometimes harsh but always captivating. Playful, ironic and sometimes sad, shots that many of us would miss but where he saw more than the obvious.
His images have preserved for generations not just a view but a feeling of days gone by, such as Les Halles Market in Paris which was destroyed in the 1970s. His photographs offer a glimpse of the people and the market place. Long before it disappeared Doisneau knew that it was going. he went for one day every week to record the sights and said “… I got up at 3:00 in the morning, at Montrouge [where he lived], there among workers in the dawn, who unloaded the trucks, those who put the goods in place. Difficult to photograph: lack of light, reflexes slowed by fatigue… and then it was intimidating. But I’m hooked. I knew it was going to disappear. I really wanted to fix the memory. “
The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville – Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville
The iconic photograph which to many represents young love in Paris was shot in 1950. It was created for Time magazine but the couple who posed for it were a mystery for decades.
Doisneau met with a French couple some 30 years later who believed they were the couple pictured. Doisneau who was a modest, kind and generous natured man did not want to shatter their illusions so let them believe it only to have them try to sue him for payment. In fact it came out in the court case that the photographs were staged and featured two actors whom the photographer had seen and asked to pose for the kiss, he said later “I would never have dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.”
In fact the law in France certainly supports his feelings, under French law individuals “own” their right to their own likeness including photographs. When he died in April 1994, Robert Doisneau left behind some 450,000 negatives that tell the story of his time with a fun loving and benevolent angle but with a depth of reflection that cannot be missed – from old men with a glint in their eye, a hint of their past, children in the street full of irrepressible energy – his photographs are an incredible link to a France and Paris of yesteryear. The incredible results of his photographs are known around the world and we love this video montage of his work set to accordion music: