The Photography of Robert Doisneau
Born in April of 1912 at Gentilly, a commune in Paris’s southern suburbs, Robert Doisneau was a French photographer. One of the pioneers of photojournalism, he was a strong advocate of Humanist Photography which, instead of focusing on newsworthy events, placed emphasis on everyday human experiences with all their customs and mannerisms. Doisneau is best known for his modest images of intermingled social classes and eccentrics in contemporary Paris cafes and streets.
Robert Doisneau was orphaned at an early age with the deaths of both his father in World War I and his mother three years later. Raised by an aunt, he enrolled at the age of thirteen in the École Estienne from which he graduated with lithography and engraving diplomas in 1929. It was during these studies that Doisseau began taking his first photographs; he shot images of the city’s cobbled streets before progressing onto adult portraits. At the end of the 1920s, Doisneau was employed as an advertising draftsman for Atelier Ullmann. Seizing the opportunity to work as a camera assistant in its graphic studio, he later became a staff photographer.
In 1931, Doisneau became an assistant to the modernist photographer André Vigneau, known for his photographic work in the three volume “Encyclopédia Photographique de l’Art: Le Musée du Louvre” and other museum art books. In 1932 Doisneau sold his first photographic story to the Excelsior magazine. After five years of working as an advertising photographer for Renault, he earned his living by doing freelance advertising, engraving and postcard photography. In 1939, Doisneau was hired by the Rapho, a press agency founded by Hungarian immigrant Charles Rado which specialized in humanist photography. It was through this agency that Doisneau began his professional street photography.
During World War II, Robert Doisneau served as both soldier and photographer. Until the end of the war, he used his draftsmanship, lettering and engraving skills to forge passports and identification papers for the French Resistance. Post-war, Doisneau returned to freelance photography; he sold his work to Life and other international magazines. Despite a brief membership with the Alliance Photo Agency and an invitation from Magnum Photos, Doisneau remained a loyal photographer for the Rapho press agency throughout his working life.
Doisneau reached the height of his career in the 1950s. His most recognizable work, “Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Volle)”, was done for an issue of Life magazine. This photograph of a couple kissing in the busy streets of Paris became an internationally recognized symbol of young love in Paris. For the photo shoot, Doisneau had posed the couple, aspiring actors Françoise Delbart and Jacques Carteaud, at the Place de la Concorde, the Rue de Rivoli, and finally the Hôtel de Ville. The photograph was published in the June 12, 1950 issue of Life; the relationship between the couple only lasted for nine months.
Robert Doisneau continued to work through the 1960s and 1970s as picture magazines were closing and television was gaining popularity. He produced children’s books, advertising photography, and worked on a series of celebrity portraits which included, among others, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Jean Cocteau, Georges Braque, and Alberto Giacometti. Doisneau also worked with writers and poets such as Swiss-born novelist Blaise Cendrars, an important member of the Montparnasse artistic community, and poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, a prominent figure in the poetic realist film movement. Prévert wrote the script for the two-part, universally acclaimed 1945 “Les Enfants du Paradis” by Marcel Carné.
In 1936, Doisneau married Pierette Chaumaison, whom he had met on a holiday in 1934 when she bicycled through the village. Two daughters, Annette and Francine, were born through the marriage; Francine would later work as Doisneau’s assistant from 1979 until his death. Pierette Chaumaison died in 1993 suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Robert Doisneau died six months later in April of 1994, after a triple heart bypass and suffering from acute pancreatitis. A shy and humble man by nature, he personally delivered his photographic work to his clients even at the height of his fame. Doisneau is buried, next to his wife, in the cemetery located at Raizeux in north-central France.
Note: Robert Doisneau’s photo archives include approximately four-hundred fifty thousand photographs. He personally established a method of thematic sorting to simplify research. At the Atelier of Robert Doisneau, ARD, there are currently fifty-one portfolios online for viewing. The atelier’s website address is: https://www.robert-doisneau.com/en/atelier/
Top Insert Image: Robert Doisneau, “Self Portrait”, 1947, Gelatin Silver Print
Second Insert Image: Robert Doisneau, “Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Volle)”, 1950, Gelatin Silver Print
Third Insert Image: Robert Doisneau, “Les Frères, Rue du Docteur Lecène, Paris”, 1934, Gelatin Silver Print
Bottom Insert Image: Gérard Dussandier, “Robert Doisneau”, 1960-1969, Gelatin Silver Print