Theatre of dreamers


PHOTOGRPAHY:Robert Doisneau captured the essence of Paris, its glorious romantic side and its more sombre facts

IN THE BEGINNING, Robert Doisneau was too shy to shoot people. His first photograph, taken with a high-end Rolleiflex in 1932, is of some cobblestones. But with that camera, he began to walk; those long, slow promenades through Paris and its suburbs that he would relish throughout his life, just waiting and watching – always at a distance – for the quiet spectacles of the everyday. Paris is a theatre where you book your seat by wasting time, he said much later, and he was an attentive waster. Slowly, he lifted his gaze from the cobbles to the children and, later, adults. “When it comes down to it, constraint is no bad thing,” he said. “My shyness censored me, and I took people only from a distance. As a result, there was space all around them, and this was something I tried to get back to.”

There are two Doisneaus, or two ways of thinking about his legacy. One is the photographer who traded in the postcard imagery of Parisian cliche: romantic couples, mischievous children, picturesque cafes. For 60 years, he chronicled Paris’s post-war rebirth – balloon sellers in the Tuileries gardens, children playing in the streets, chic Parisians and prostitutes – and thanks to his job at the Rapho agency and his exposure in magazines such as Life, Paris Matchand Vogue, his work became wildly successful. But for some critics, there’s something suspect about those stylised and staged shots, epitomised by Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville.

Then there’s the lesser-known Doisneau, whose oeuvre was assembled outside work hours, between the fashion shoots and magazine commissions in which he had little interest, on those long, aimless walks he liked to take. These are the subject of a new exhibition at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, which takes about 100 less-well-known photos and gives us an altogether grittier, more sombre and melancholy city. “For a long time, Doisneau was seen as the bard of the Parisian picturesque,” says Agnès Sire, the director of the gallery. “With his genius for illustration, he knew better than anyone how to seize on the pleasant image, the unexpected anecdote. But his oeuvre is much more complex.”

A great many of the images Sire has selected from Doisneau’s archive were published in his first book, La Banlieue de Paris, which he produced in collaboration with the writer Blaise Cendrars in 1949. The project with Cendrars was a sideline. Doisneau was a press photographer at the time, but would pull himself away from the day-job whenever he could to photograph the suburbs of his youth (he was born in Gentilly). At the time, these were still in-between spaces, dividing the city and the country, and social classes.

He captures the chalky, lonesome feel of the postwar industrial suburbs that were then rising fast on the capital’s periphery – brutalist towers, shantytown huts, oppressive grey skies, factory plumes rising in the distance. Workers file out in silhouette from the giant Renault plant at Boulogne-Billancourt, where Doisneau worked for five years. A faceless cyclist, his head cast downward, hurries home through the heavy rain. In Carrefour Saint-Germain(1945), the famously elegant cross-roads at the heart of Paris is under heavy snow, transforming it into an anonymous eastern European esplanade. During the second World War, Doisneau printed pamphlets and fake identity papers for the resistance, and here there are constant reminders of the war: Le cheval tombé(1942), an image of a fallen horse lying on a wet Parisian street as a crowd watches helplessly, represented for Doisneau “the great sadness” of his city under the Nazi occupation.

And yet familiar Doisneau signatures abound: the banality of daily toil brightened by a knowing, ironic juxtaposition, a belly-laugh, a stolen smile or – a recurrent theme – the escape routes dreamed up in a child’s imagination. And so, in La voiture fondue(1944), five children turn the clapped-out shell of an abandoned car into a sumptuous carriage, the coachman with his whip on the roof, another navigator on the bonnet, a third boy keeping a vigilant eye on the road behind.

The exhibition is also a corrective to the charge that Doisneau’s trademark playful humour signals a lack of depth or somehow leaves him suspect. He comes across as an intuitive master of the absurd, using his wit as a salve rather than a screen for his harsh subjects. And, like the best jokes, his wit can be deadly serious. “Humour is a form of modesty, a way of not describing things, of touching on them delicately, with a wink,” Doisneau said. “You suggest a thing with the lightest or most mocking of touches, it seems as though it hasn’t been mentioned, yet the thing has been said all the same.”

** Robert Doisneau, Du Métier à l’Oeuvre,runs until April 18th at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris,

The Irishman at the heart of a kiss

Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville, or The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville, follows Robert Doisneau like a catch-phrase follows a comedian. His most famous picture, showing a young couple stealing a kiss on a busy rue de Rivoli, was taken in 1950 for a series commissioned by Lifemagazine, and, thanks to its ubiquity on posters, calendars and postcards, it remains one of the most recognisable images of the city.

A few years before Doisneau’s death in 1994, a retired couple came forward claiming they were the lovers featured in the photo and should be paid their share of the royalties. The case was dismissed, but in the course of it Doisneau revealed that the scene had been staged. While working on the Lifeseries about Paris lovers, he had spotted Françoise Bornet and her then boyfriend Jacques Carteaud near the school where they were studying theatre, and they agreed to pose.

Some 40 years later, Bornet surfaced and showed Doisneau the original print bearing his signature and stamp, which he had sent her just a few days after the shoot. The couple didn’t stay together; Carteaud became a wine producer. In 2005, Bornet sold her original print for €156,000 at auction.

But look further into the picture. The man in the beret striding purposefully behind the couple was Jack Costello, an auctioneer from Dublin, who was on a pilgrimage to Rome when the photograph was taken. It was 1950, a holy year, and he had travelled from his home in Clontarf by motorbike with a neighbour to join in the religious commemorations in Rome – the first and only time he ever travelled abroad. Costello is thought to have been sightseeing alone in Paris when he wandered into Doisneau’s frame. He never lived to enjoy his fame, alas. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that one of his sons spotted his father in a large poster of Le Baiserin a shop window in Dublin.