Icons of Photography: Robert Doisneau

Robert Doisneau was born on April 14, 1912, in Gentilly, an inner suburb of Paris – now the first RER stop beyond the Périphérique, then just to the south of the old city walls. Orphaned by seven, he was brought up by an unloving aunt.

Many of his best pictures were images of children being, well, children – delightfully, joyously, thoughtfully, thoughtlessly, absorbedly, self-consciously. It’s hard, isn’t it, not to see a photographer creating for himself, in his pictures, a happier childhood. ‘I have managed to build my own personal theatre,’ he said, knowing how lucky he was to redress that early lack of loving with an open-eyed love of life. ‘There are days when simply seeing feels like happiness itself . . . You feel so rich, the elation seems almost excessive and you want to share it.’ Several primary schools in France are named after him.

His was a theatre of the everyday, of the moments when private and public collide, of the world rather than the studio. He wasn’t the first street photographer but he brought a new democracy to the genre. When he photographed people, they weren’t specimens or symbols – of hope or stoicism or the great socialist future. They were fellow humans, people – like him, like us. ‘The ordinary gestures of ordinary people in ordinary situations.’ He was the most domestic of photographers.

His beat was Paris. He owned Paris – it’s his city and we can only look at it. Suburban Paris, that is – a landscape only lightly illuminated by the grandeurs of Haussmann’s City of Light. A corner café in the rain. A street accordionist, that big favourite of mid-20th century photographers – Walker Evans, André Kertész et al. A cabaret dancer – Shimmying Wanda (who was also photographed by her neighbour, Brassaï). In Doisneau’s words, ‘that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed.’

Taking and adapting insights and approaches that were there in Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting – Degas’ backstage dancers, Cézanne’s card-players, the bored (or calculating) barmaid (or part-time prostitute) in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, the picnic in Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, the riverside Sunday of Seurat – Doisneau used them to create his own modern world, a Paris of his dreams. If that dreamworld came – as it did – to embody our own Parisian dreams, is that because it reflected our own desires? Or because Doisneau’s passion – and its close companion, fear of emptiness – had the power to shape our dreams and desires?

He started work young, training first as a lithographer and a letter designer at an ad agency. While there, he discovered photography. He then worked as an assistant to the artist André Vigneau who introduced him to the world of avant-garde art and artists – Paris was then the centre of that world. He met the artists who would mould and shape our vision of modern France. Not just visual artists but writers such as the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert whose work was so very much an expression of the desires and worries of mid-century Paris.

The legacy of that early grounding in modernist aesthetics is central to his work. Not in his pictures’ formal qualities – which are traditional, conservative even. Rather, it is there in what he chose to photograph. More precisely, it is there in his stance towards his déclassé subject matter. There are no kings or captains in his work. His interest was the inherent wonders of the working man (and woman).

He didn’t judge his subjects. There is no sense of the anthropologist in his work – as there is in, say, Walker Evans who can sometimes seem like a Victorian scientist patrolling nearby streets as if they were a foreign planet. Doisneau actually liked and appreciated what he photographed. He never sneered and was always honest in his sentimentality – hence his wide popularity. He was no naïf, though. His most famous picture of a couple embracing, lusciously, on a Paris street – taken for LIFE magazine, in 1950 – was posed by a couple of aspiring actors. He paid them 500 francs each.

He bought his first camera, a Rolleiflex, in 1932. The same year, he took his first great picture, of two young children, hand-in-hand, on their way to buy milk, crossing a wintry midday street in, well, Gentilly, of course. As ever, if you want to make truly global work, start with the profoundly local. ‘In these ordinary surroundings which were my own I happened to glimpse some fragments of time in which the everyday world appeared freed from its heaviness,’ he wrote, 60 years later. ‘Waiting for the miracle’ he called it.

On holiday, he met Pierrette Chaumaison – she was on a bike at the time. They settled down in Montrouge – the next suburb along from Gentilly – and pretty much stayed there until his death. Like Magritte, he left his surrealistic instincts at work, and lived the home-life of an archetypal Francophone bourgeois.

After national service, in 1934, he took a job as a photographer in the publicity department of Renault. He was sacked in 1939 for persistent lateness. From there on, he was a self-employed photographer. During the war, he shot pictures of Paris getting by – and helped out the Resistance with a little forgery. He photographed the liberation. There are no corpses in his pictures, though, or shaven-headed women – as there were in Capa’s pictures of similar moments. ‘One should only take a photo when one feels full of love for one’s fellow man,’ he said.

His first book of photographs, La Banlieue de Paris (The Suburbs of Paris), appeared in 1949. By 1951, his work was on show in New York, at MoMA, with Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and Willy Ronis. Another book, Les Parisiens Tels Qu’ils Sont (Parisians As They Are), was published by Robert Delpire. He worked for Le Point magazine. He photographed Picasso and Braque. He took some wonderful colour images of Palm Springs, in 1960.

More than anything, though, he spent his life taking black and white pictures of the everyday, the mundane, the stuff left unregarded by high art – even the most moderne kind. If it patrols the border of the picturesque, so be it. Like his audience – like most people, probably – he saw no intrinsic merit in boundary-stretching. For him – again, like most people, probably – he saw the bleeding edge as something to be, sensibly, avoided. This was a quite unproblematic view for him. If he was one of life’s Panglossians, he knew it, writing: ‘In these ordinary surroundings which were my own I happened to glimpse some fragments of time in which the everyday world appeared freed from its heaviness.’

He lived longer and photographed longer than seems possible, long enough to pass out of fashion and return as a totem not just of street photography but of the modern city. One of his most widely published images, his picture of a dog with wheels for back legs was taken, on a Paris street, not as most think, in the 1930s or even the 1950s but in the late 1970s – the year after the Sex Pistols had paid their first visit to the city. Even then, he had decades to go. A 1997 collection of his work was titled Three Seconds of Eternity, echoing something he once said: ‘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.’

He died, on April 1, 1994 – in Montrouge, of course.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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