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The Photographer Who Satisfied His Hunger

Everybody has a hungry heart, every photographer a hungry eye, and Robert Doisneau (1912–1994) had both. What his heart was hungry for was life lived in various shades of happiness; what his hungry eye scavenged from the city of Paris was just that. Although there is some danger in reading an artist’s biography and especially his or her psychological state from his work alone, it would be difficult to believe based on the photographic evidence that someone as insouciant, as obviously amused, as slyly witty as Doisneau wasn’t someone having a good time. He wrote that there were days of utter bliss with his camera, made perhaps more exalted by their very rarity.

Robert Doisneau. Fragment of the relief sculpture on the Arc de Triomphe, 1954.
Robert Doisneau. Fragment of the relief sculpture on the Arc de Triomphe, 1954.

Certainly the crowds that waited over an hour to see Doisneau: Paris en Liberté, a show of 280 works at the Hotel de Ville in Paris from October to February 17, looked gratified, some even tickled, once they were inside wandering among the images of flea circuses, flirtations, and acrobatic stunts in bars. The exhibition, a bit too big like many today, nonetheless amounted to an oasis in an advancing art desert. So much photography these days pounds home grim news, dwells on metropolitan isolation, the inhospitable environment or the slippery nature of identity. Not Doisneau.
Though several 19th and 20th-century photographers have photographed Paris viewed past a gargoyle on an upper story of Notre Dame, only Doisneau, so far as I know, positioned himself so the gargoyle appeared to hold the tip of the Eiffel Tower between its teeth. Many photographers have snapped pigeons taking a breather on the heads of great men’s monuments; Doisneau photographed a bird perched on the stone penis of a muscular nude. Doisneau was as charmed by a good-looking tough guy in a hair net puffing cigarette smoke under a hair dryer as he was by a chauffeur lecturing eight mostly attentive and très chic Pekinese on the floor of a touring car.

Doisneau photographed from the early 1930s on, through several decades that may have been gentler times than ours (though the past has a bad habit of pretending to be rosier than it was), when Paris wore a kind of metropolitan halo. It still wears one, though now slightly askew. But people (and not just photographers) tend to see what they want to unless forced to see something else, and Doisneau was intent on finding a pleasant repast for his eye. Paris Doisneau, the exhibition catalogue (in French), intersperses a lot of his wry and affectionate writing, including this: “I made a report on Saint-Germain-des-Pres—the cellars, the fauna and the artists—in short everything that constitutes the extreme point of western civilization,” and this: “The world I tried to show was a world I would feel good in, where people would be kind, where I would find the affection I would like to inspire. My photos were a sort of proof that such a world could exist.” Lucky man, who could make his wishes and fantasies come true simply by selectively looking at reality.

Not that he ignored the world’s ills, just that he seldom dwelled on them. His photographs of the German occupation are not outstanding, but bearing witness counts. (He also fabricated documents for friends in trouble but had to change his style when a resistance printer said he was doing it with more craft than bureaucrats could muster.) He photographed street walkers and the homeless, sympathetically, but by temperament preferred photographing elderly men closely appraising the breasts of nearly naked show girls or helicopters flying in formation over Maillol’s three bronze graces.

World War II may have made his predilections even stronger. After the war ended, European photographers and filmmakers addressed local and national realities with a new emphasis on the human situation, some looking at social inequities, others intent on reinforcing the drive to return to normalcy by showing it in progress; Italian neorealism was the template. With Brassai, Boubat, Willy Ronis, and others, Doisneau was one of the photographers of the loosely styled French “ecole humaniste,” which focused on human beings. On his incessant, inquisitive rounds of Paris, he embroidered on a fond French assumption that their civilization is (or was) so secure that it could afford all manner of pleasures and eccentricities. His cagey sense of humor kept him, almost all the time, this side of sentimentality.

Drama was not Doisneau’s enterprise; rather, it was life on its ordinary, bumbling, inadvertently amusing rounds. Sometimes he multiplied its charms, as in a very large montage of a building with interior views of some of its occupants inserted into the façade, or an enormous wall composed of multiple images of pedestrians rashly trying to cross the Place de la Concorde against attacking automobiles. He was the ultimate flaneur, a stroller who walks the city streets to consume the metropolis with his eyes—the genre might have been invented for photographers. It was brought forth by and in Paris in the 19th century when sidewalks were built for pedestrians and department stores installed tempting displays in large glass windows. The ranks of the flaneur increased with time and cities, only to be reined in when cities became so big, so impersonal and dangerous, that pedestrians feared looking too hard at others.

Doisneau particularly liked the little people: fortune tellers, butchers, concierges, street accordionists, habitués of bistros. He said he respected the “world of those who woke up early” because of his experience as an industrial photographer in the 1930s, and claimed that his images were taken during hours stolen from his different employers. Indeed, Renault fired him in 1939 for irregularity in his work. His eye was too hungry to feed on factories all day.

He was so entranced by the act of seeing that he took a whole series of people looking at the “Mona Lisa,” the watchers only, without the famous lady in his viewfinder. This was in 1945, 50 years before Thomas Struth observed the observers of Michelangelo’s “David.”

One looks at Doisneau a lot more skeptically since the revelation that his famous picture of “Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville (The Kiss of City Hall)” had been posed by hired models. A few of his pictures always seemed too good to be true (which doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t, at least not if you have faith in photography, chance, and absurdity, not to mention symbols). There’s the man stealthily relishing the delicious rump of a painted nude while his wife looks elsewhere, which looks posed but may not have been, or the two workmen straining to erect a bronze nude by Maillos, each of them pushing up one of her breasts with a mighty hand. The real question about “Le Baiser” is not why he kept its staging secret, which is obvious enough, but why did he stage it at all? Lovers kissed all over the place in Paris long before that was acceptable in America, and they haven’t stopped. Doisneau himself captured many—some of which he might have set up, though patience would have rewarded him with others. Staging in front of the Hotel de Ville suggests that Doisneau had more in mind than “mere” happiness. The image says “Vive la France, vive Paris, where love and good government openly co-exist.”

When one of the models sued in 1993, the fact that he’d paid and we’d been deceived made front-page news. I suspect the current popularity of staging and the perceived potential for infinite construction and alteration of images have made the issue less earth shaking. Today, a celebrity who is discovered to be something other than what was initially presented to the public has a good chance of becoming even more popular. A print of “LeBaiser” has just been offered to the mayor of Paris by Doisneau’s two daughters. In 2005, another print sold at auction for 155,000 euro.

If you think you can’t buy happiness, maybe you should consider going to auctions.


Vicki Goldberg


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

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