Robert Doisneau (April 14, 1912, Gentilly, Val-de-Marne – April 1, 1994) was a French photographer noted for his frank and often humorous depictions of Paris street life.
Robert Doisneau was one of France’s most popular and prolific reportage photographers. He was known for his modest, playful, and ironic images of amusing juxtapositions, mingling social classes, and eccentrics in contemporary Paris streets and cafes. Influenced by the work of Kertész, Atget, and Cartier-Bresson, in over 20 books Doisneau has presented a charming vision of human frailty and life as a series of quiet, incongruous moments. Doisneau has written: “The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.”
Among his most recognizable work is Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville), a photo of a couple kissing in the busy streets of Paris. The identity of the couple was a mystery until 1993, when Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne took Doisneau to court for taking the picture without their knowledge. This action prompted Doisneau to reveal that he posed the shot in 1950 using actor/models Françoise Bornet and Jacques Carteaud. Françoise was given an original print as part of her payment. In April 2005 she sold the print for 155,000 € at an auction. Paris was one of the favorite photographic subjects of Doisneau.
Doisneau’s work gives unusual prominence and dignity to children’s street culture; returning again and again to the theme of children at play in the city, unfettered by parents. His work treats their play with seriousness and respect. In his honor, and owing to this, there are several Ecole Primaire (Primary Schools) named after him. An example is at Veretz (Indre-et-Loire).
The Maison de la photographie Robert Doisneau in Gentilly, Val-de-Marne, is a photographic gallery named to commemorate Doisneau.
Robert Doisneau was one of France’s most well known photographers. He is best known for his street photography and the many playful images in everyday French life. His photographs over the course of several decades provide people with a great record of French life. He has published over twenty books with realistic and charming pictures of personal moments in the lives of individuals. One of his famous quotes is: “The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.” Robert Doisneau was born on April 14, 1912 in Gentilly in the suburbs of Paris. Not much is know about his childhood. At age thirteen he enrolled at the Ecole Estienne, this was craft school where he studied engraving and lithography. This is where he had his first contacts with the arts. He also took classes in life drawing and still life. With his old-fashioned training, he had great difficulty obtaining work as a lithographer. By the end of the nineteen twenties, Robert Doisneau was working at the graphics studio of Atelier Ullmann. This is where he begun making his firsts experiments with photography. In 1931 he left advertising and took a job as an assistant with the modernist photographer André Vigneau. He sold his first photo story to the Excelsior newspaper in 1932. In 1934 he married Pierette Chaumaison. That same year he began working as an industrial advertising photographer for the Renault car factory. This job increased Robert Doisneau’s interest in working with photography and people. In 1991 he was interviewed and admitted that the years at the Renault car factory marked “the beginning of his career as a photographer and the end of his youth.” Five years later, in 1939, he was fired for being constantly late. He was forced to try freelance advertising and postcard photography to earn his living. Postcard photography in France at that time had Europe’s largest industry. Post cards served the purpose of modern greetings as well as vacation souvenirs. That same year he was hired by the Rapho photo agency. He traveled throughout France in search of picture stories. This is where he took his first professional street photographs. He worked there for several months until the out break of the Second World War. Robert Doisneau was drafted into war in 1939; he served the country both as a soldier and as a photographer. He was in war until 1940 and continued working for the resistance until the end of the war in 1945. He used his engraving skills to forge passports and identification papers for the French resistance.
In 1950, Robert Doisneau photographed his most famous photograph, “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville.” This photograph has been reproduced by the millions and is perhaps the most famous French photograph. It became a symbol of young love in Paris which is the city most associated with love. This photograph of two lovers kissing in a Paris street was made for LIFE magazine. It was an image of post- war France, and a great representation of Robert Doisneau’s work. He explained that “his photographs show the world as he would like it to be.” That same year he also photographed famous many artists including Giacometti, Cocteau, Leger, Braque, and Picasso. The Fifties were Robert Doisneau’s peak, and then the Sixties were to be his wilderness years. In the seventies, times in Europe begun to change. Editors began to look for new reportage that would show the sense of a new social era. All over Europe, the old-style picture magazines were closing as television got the public’s attention. But Robert Doisneau continued to work, producing books for children and returning to advertising photography and celebrity portraits. In the summer of 1993, an elderly French couple, Jean-Louis and Denise Lavergne, went to a French court to claim their share in the earnings from Robert Doisneau’s famous photo “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville”. They incited they had been the couple who was photographed that day in 1950. By the time they began the lawsuit, the photograph had earned over 50,000 pounds in print sales alone, not including reproduction fees for many thousands of posters, postcards and even a jigsaws. The Lavergnes’ lawsuit eventually led Robert Doisneau to confess 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 their share from the sales of the photograph. Robert Doisneau showed us not the real Paris, but rather the one that he had always believed was really there. He won several awards through out his life, some of these being the Balzac Prize in 1986, the Grand Prix National de la Photographie in1983, the Niepce Prize in 1956 and the Kodak Prize in 1947. A short film, “Le Paris de Robert Doisneau”, was made in 1973. The photography of Robert Doisneau has had a revival in the last ten years or so. Many of his portraits and photos of Paris from the end of World War II through the 1950’s have been turned into calendars and postcards and have becomes icons of French life. Doisneau was in many ways a shy and humble man, like his photography. He lived in the Paris his whole life and died in 1994.