“If I knew how to take a good photograph, I’d do it every time.” ―
Robert Doisneau was a popular reportage photographer in France. His abundant work showed the life of the eclectic city of Paris in the 20th century. His best-known image is the “Kiss by the Hôtel d Ville” made in 1950 for Life magazine. It became the symbol of young love in Paris. It has been reprinted thousands of times worldwide spreading the idea of Paris as the ‘city of love.’
Doisneau studied both engraving and lithography. He became interested in photography at a drug firm. He taught himself the craft. His hobby was capturing the day-to-day life of Paris as he strolled through her streets. His first sale was to the Excelsior newspaper.
He went on to work with André Vigneau as his cameraman then moved into industrial and advertising photography at Renault. He was fired from his position in 1939 for his habit of being late to work. He became a freelance photographer of advertising and postcards, a large market for photography at the time. He made some of his street photos as a pro working for the Rapho agency.
World War II
He left Rapho by being drafted into the French army in 1939. He became a member of the Résistance where he was both a soldier and a photographer. He applied his skills of engraving to forge passports and identification papers. He photographed the occupation and the liberation of Paris.
Doisneau made some of his most remembered photos after the war when he became part of the Alliance Photo Press Agency. He returned to Rapho shortly after and remained with that agency for the rest of his career. He turned down an invitation from Henri Cartier-Bresson to move to Magnum.
From 1949 to 1952, Robert Doisneau worked under contract as a full-time staff photographer at Vogue. While at the magazine, he made acquaintances in society. His love was always the common person in the street.
Doisneau described it this way, “The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.”
The story of “Kiss at Hôtel de Ville”
A couple, Jean and Denise Lavergne believed that they were the couple in “Kiss.” In the 80s, they had lunch with Doisneau and his daughter Annette, his assistant at the time. The couple shared that they were in the famous photo. Doisneau said nothing because he did not want to “shatter their dream.” His silence led them to take him to court for photographing them without their knowledge.
Under French law, people own the right to their own likeness. The court proceeding found Doisneau revealing the secret behind the photo. He explained that he had posed the photo of Jaques Carteaud and Françoise Delbart after seeing them kiss. He asked them to repeat it. “I would never have dared to photograph people like that,” he explained. “Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.” He prevailed against the Lavergnes.
Honors and awards
In 1947, Robert Doisneau won the Le Prix Kodak followed by the Pirx Niépce in 1956 and the Chevelier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1984. He lived in Paris until his death in 1994.
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