Today one of the famous French names from a more recent era – the 50’s and onwards. After seeing a few more of his images it is obvious that this man’s skill and humor shone through in his chosen profession.
Robert Doisneau was born on the 14th of April 1912. His father was a plumber and died in WWI when Robert was only about four years old, his mother died when he was seven. An unloving aunt raised him until the age thirteen when he enrolled at the École Estienne, a craft school from which he graduated in 1929 with diplomas in engraving and lithography. There he had his first contact with the arts, taking classes in figure drawing and still life. When he was 16 he took up amateur photography, but was reportedly so shy that he started by photographing cobble-stones before progressing to children and then adults.
At the end of the 1920s Doisneau found work as a draughtsman (lettering artist) in the advertising industry at Atelier Ullmann (Ullmann Studio), a creative graphics studio that specialised in the pharmaceutical industry. Here he took an opportunity to change career by also acting as camera assistant in the studio and then becoming a staff photographer. In 1931 he left both the studio and advertising, taking a job as an assistant with the modernist photographer André Vigneau and would sell his first photographic story to Excelsior magazine in 1932. In 1934 he began working as an industrial advertising photographer for the Renault car factory at Boulogne-Billancourt. Working at Renault increased Doisneau’s interest in working with photography and people. In 1991 he admitted that the years at the Renault car factory marked “the beginning of his career as a photographer and the end of his youth.”
In 1936 Doisneau married Pierrette Chaumaison whom he had met in 1934 when she was cycling through a village where he was on holiday. They had two daughters, Annette (b.1942) and Francine (b.1947)
In 1939, he was fired from Renault because he constantly was late. He was forced to try freelance advertising, engraving, and postcard photography to earn his living. At that time the French postcard industry was the largest in Europe, postcards served as greetings cards as well as vacation souvenirs. In the same year he was hired by Charles Rado of the Rapho photographic agency and traveled throughout France in search of picture stories. This is where he took his first professional street photographs. Doisneau worked at Rapho until the outbreak of World War II, whereupon he was drafted into the French army as both a soldier and photographer. He was in the army until 1940 and from then until the end of the war in 1945 used his draughtsmanship, lettering artistry, and engraving skills to forge passports and identification papers for the French Resistance.
Some of Doisneau’s most memorable photographs were taken after the war. He returned to freelance photography and sold photographs to Life and other international magazines. He briefly joined the Alliance Photo Agency but rejoined the Rapho agency in 1946 and remained with them throughout his working life, despite receiving an invitation from Henri Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum Photos. His photographs never ridiculed the subjects; thus he refused to photograph women whose heads had been shaved as punishment for sleeping with Germans. In 1948 he was contracted by Vogue to work as a fashion photographer. The editors believed he would bring a fresh and more casual look the magazine but Doisneau didn’t enjoy photographing beautiful women in elegant surroundings; he preferred street photography. When he could escape from the studio, he photographed ever more in the streets of Paris.
Group XV was established in 1946 in Paris to promote photography as art and drawing attention to the preservation of French photographic heritage. Doisneau joined the Group in 1950 and participated alongside Rene-Jacques, Willy Ronis, and Pierre Jahan.
The 1950s were Doisneau’s peak, but the 1960s were his wilderness years. In the 1970s Europe began to change and editors looked 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 received the public’s attention. Doisneau continued to work, producing children’s books, advertising photography, and celebrity portraits including Alberto Giacometti, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, and Pablo Picasso. He worked with writers and poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Jacques Prévert, and he credited Prevert with giving him the confidence to photograph the everyday street scenes that most people simply ignored.
In 1950 Doisneau created his most recognizable work for Life – Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville), a photograph of a couple kissing in the busy streets of Paris,which became an internationally recognized symbol of young love in Paris. Jean and Denise Lavergne erroneously believed themselves to be the couple in The Kiss, and when Robert and Annette (his older daughter and also his assistant at the time) met them for lunch in the 1980s he “did not want to shatter their dream” so he said nothing. This resulted in them taking him to court for “taking their picture without their knowledge”, because under French law an individual owns the rights to their own likeness. The court action forced Doisneau to reveal that he posed the shot using Françoise Delbart (20) and Jacques Carteaud (23), both aspiring actors and lovers whom he had just seen kissing, but had not photographed initially because of his natural reserve; he approached them and asked if they would repeat the kiss. He won the court case against the Lavergnes. Doisneau said in 1992, “I would never have dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.” In 2005 Françoise Bornet (née Delbart) stated that, “He told us we were charming, and asked if we could kiss again for the camera. We didn’t mind. We were used to kissing. We were doing it all the time then, it was delicious. Monsieur Doisneau was adorable, very low key, very relaxed.” They posed at the Place de la Concorde, the Rue de Rivoli and finally the Hôtel de Ville. The photograph was published in the 12 June 1950, issue of Life.The relationship between Delbart and Carteaud only lasted for nine months. Delbart continued her acting career, but Carteaud gave up acting to become a wine producer.
In 1950 Françoise Bornet was given an original print of the photograph, bearing Doisneau’s signature and stamp, as part of the payment for her “work”, and thus her subsequent attempt at litigation in the 1990s was rejected by the court. In April 2005 she sold the print at auction for €155,000 to an unidentified Swiss collector via the Paris auctioneers Artcurial Briest-Poulain-Le Fur. Doisneau’s eldest daughter Annette said: “We won in the courts (re: The Kiss), but my father was deeply shocked. He discovered a world of lies, and it hurt him. ‘The Kiss’ ruined the last years of his life. Add that to my mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and I think it’s fair to say he died of sadness.” Doisneau died in 1994, only six month after his beloved wife Pierette passed away, having had a triple heart bypass and suffering from acute pancreatitis. They are buried side-by-side in the cemetery at Raizeux.
Doisneau was in many ways a shy and humble man, similar to his photography, still delivering his own work at the height of his fame. He chastised his youngest daughter Francine for charging an “indecent” daily fee of £2,000 for his work on a beer advertising campaign – he wanted only the rate of an “artisan photographer”.
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