Robert Doisneau was a French photographer. In the 1930s he used a Leica on the streets of Paris. He and Henri Cartier-Bresson were pioneers of photojournalism. He is renowned for his 1950 image Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Town Hall), a photograph of a couple kissing in the busy streets of Paris. Doisneau was appointed a Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honour in 1984.
Doisneau 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 André Kertész, Eugène Atget, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, in more than twenty books he presented a charming vision of human frailty and life as a series of quiet, incongruous moments.
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.
Doisneau’s father, a plumber, died in active service in World War I when Robert was about four. His mother died when he was seven. He then was raised by an unloving aunt.
At thirteen 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 drawingand 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.
In 1932 he sold his first photographic story to Excelsior magazine.
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.” Five years later, in 1939, he was fired because he was constantly 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 1939 he was hired by Charles Rado of the Rapho photographic agency and travelled throughout France in search of picture stories. This is where he took his first professional street photographs.
Doisneau worked at the Rapho agency 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.
|“||I don’t photograph life as it is, but life as I would like it to be. – Robert Doisneau||”|
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.
Doisneau 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 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). From 1979 until his death, Annette worked as his assistant.
His wife died in 1993 suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Doisneau died six months later in 1994, having had a triple heart bypass and suffering from acute pancreatitis. 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 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 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”.
|“||Maybe if I were 20, success would change me. But now I’m a dinosaur of photography. – Robert Doisneau||”|
He lived in southern Paris (Gentilly, Val-de-Marne, Montrouge, and the 13th arrondissement) throughout his life. He is buried in the cemetery at Raizeux beside his wife.
Robert Doisneau was appointed a Chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honour in 1984.
He won several awards throughout his life, including:
- the Balzac Prize in 1986 (Honoré de Balzac)
- the Grand Prix National de la Photographie in 1983
- the Niépce Prizein 1956 (Nicéphore Niépce)
- the Kodak Prize in 1947
A short film, “Le Paris de Robert Doisneau”, was made in 1973.
In 1991 The Royal Photographic Society awarded Doisneau an Honorary Fellowship (HonFRPS) which is given to distinguished persons having, from their position or attainments, an intimate connection with the science or fine art of photography of The Society.
In 1992 the French actress and producer Sabine Azéma made the film Bonjour Monsieur Doisneau.
The Maison de la photographie Robert Doisneau in Gentilly, Val-de-Marne, is a photographic gallery named in his honour.
Several Ecole Primaire (primary schools) are named after him. ‘Ecole élémentaire Robert Doisneau is at Véretz (Indre-et-Loire).
The photography of Doisneau has had a revival since his death in 1994. Many of his portraits and photographs of Paris from the end of World War II through the 1950s have been turned into calendars and postcards, and have become icons of French life.
The Allée Robert Doisneau is named in his honour at the ‘Parc de Billancourt’ on the site of the old Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt where he didn’t work.