Passing fame for the man in the beret

 

As the famous Parisian photo The Kiss is sold for €156,000, an Irish family tell how their father came to be in it. Róisín Ingle reports.

News that an original print of an iconic black-and-white photograph taken in Paris sold for €156,000 this week came as a surprise to many, but the auction of Robert Doisneau's The Kiss holds particular fascination for one Irish family.

"I would have had a serious crack at buying it myself if only I had known it was for sale," says John Costello, a son of the late Jack Costello, who can be seen in the photograph walking purposefully behind two lovers locked in a passionate embrace.

Jack Costello, an auctioneer from Dublin, was on a pilgrimage to Rome when the photograph was taken but he never lived to enjoy his unlikely fame. It was 1950, a holy year, and he had travelled overland from his home in Clontarf by motorbike with his next-door neighbour to join in the religious commemorations in Rome. While in Paris, the two friends lost track of each other, only reuniting later in Italy.

Costello is thought to have been sightseeing alone in Paris when he wandered oblivious, wearing a beret and a sombre expression, into Doisneau's frame. It was the first and the only time he had ever travelled abroad.

"The trip was the most out-of-character thing he ever did in his whole life," says his daughter Colette. "I remember Mammy crying when he left and crying when he came back."

It wasn't until years later, in the early 1990s, that one of his sons identified his father in a large poster of The Kiss in a shop window. By then the picture, originally published in America's Life magazine, had become a symbol of romantic Paris and a staple on teenage walls.

"I was walking into the We Frame It shop in Dawson Street when I saw the poster, and as soon as I saw it I recognised him," says Costello. "I thought there was something terribly familiar about the man in the beret. I rang my brother who thought the same.

"We were amazed."

They matched the clothes their father was wearing in his passport photo to the ones he is wearing in the Doisneau print. Family members also remember playing with their father's beret as a child.

"Not many men in Dublin wore berets at that time but he did," says Costello.

The family once wrote to Doisneau to inform him of the identity of the beret-clad passerby in his famous picture but received no reply.

"We didn't want to push it because later there was controversy over the identity of the people kissing and we didn't want Doisneau to think we were looking for money," says Colette. She and her daughter later went to Paris and took photos at the same corner beside l'Hotel de Ville "just like Doisneau did when my father walked past".

The woman seen kissing her then-boyfriend in the photo, actress Françoise Bornet, sold the print for 10 times its estimated price on Tuesday and described the windfall as "a Christmas present".

Meanwhile, posters of The Kiss are framed and hung in Costello family members' homes around the world.

"I have a house in France and it's on the wall there," says Costello's niece, Helen Gygax.

"When locals come to visit I point at the picture and say 'Mon oncle! Mon oncle!' and they can't believe it."

Initially it was thought the Doisneau picture was unposed, but the photographer debunked that myth by revealing that the lovers had posed for the photograph at his request after he had spotted them kissing earlier that day.

However, the bystanders, including Jack Costello, were caught on camera completely unawares - creating for one Irish family a legacy that will continue to be handed down for generations to come.